Unka Kim's Martial Art
bloggie thingie

SDKsupplies : When You're Ready
If you'd like to  comment on anything

send us an email
cool links

Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Science
Youtube channel 1
180mag: photography
Kim's art and photography blog
more cool links

Tales of a Budo Bum
For What It's Worth - Free videos
Journal of Asian Martial Arts
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
Archives of Budo

blog archive

2013 July-Dec
2013 Jan-June
2012 July-Dec
2012 Jan-June
2011 Jan-Dec
2010 Jul-Dec
2010 Jan-Jun
2009 Oct-Dec
2009 Apr-Sept
2009 Jan-Mar
2008 Aug-Dec
2008 Apr-July
2008 Jan-Mar
You can track this page with Google reader, firefox add-on Update Scanner or others Click here for info

Follow SDKsupplies.com at:

This is Me
Taken by my daughter, I love this shot, what do the kids say? Face-palm?



Secrets need keys

So, it's grading time and folks want to know what they have to do to pass.

Somewhere around my house I think I've got a secret Masonic handbook, might have come from Gramps. I'm pretty sure I've got an OddFellows manual too, and the old man taught me the secret Masonic handshake once. I also know the secret handshake of the old Kampeitai as passed down through certain lines of martial arts.

Now I've been practicing Niten Ichiryu for a little while and I shouldn't be telling you guys this but when you start practicing they give you a secret code key that lets you decipher all the secret techniques in the scrolls. Without the key the scrolls are just so many words, so much fantasy fodder for kids.

I REALLY shouldn't be telling you guys this but if you want the code-key that was given to me by my first Niten sensei, here's what he whispered in my ear one day............... keiko.

It's interesting, if you really read the Gorinsho closely you may actually run across the code-key in the text itself.

Dec 2, 2013


A comment on the iaido-L email list (yes those things still exist) made reference to a video of one of the old sets of partner practice for my iaido school. I would like to see that video, not because I think I'll see something new, but because it would give me permission to teach whatever I see there.

With 30 years in and 5 or 6 sword schools under my belt (along with all that stored up beer) there isn't much I haven't seen or can't do, so learning a new waza isn't all that likely. My problem these days is to keep from mixing things up. I try not to use an example from Niten Ichiryu to explain concepts in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu unless both schools have the same technique.

So the more material I see from either school, the more permission I have to teach what I know. Makes it easier to keep the instruction clean... although those students who stick with me for a decade end up with the same overall knowledge that I've got, presumably worrying them about cross-talk as much as it worries me.

The other thing that concerns me is that the deeper I get into any school, the more sources I watch or read, the wider the school becomes. I suspect that eventually I can just throw it all into the mixer without going "outside the box" of any particular school. The fundamentals are the same, the techniques (waza) are similar, it's the frilly bits (etiquette) and the sequencing of the waza that change from school to school.

Of course all I'm saying here is that you can learn the same lessons in any school, and for those who don't spend 30 years banging away at it, the similarities or differences of the schools don't really matter.

I'm teaching sword to the aikido class and am at the point of "hold it this way and swing it in this shape" so at the end of the class I figure I've failed as an instructor (no fancy concepts passed along) but the students are all enthusiastic so I suppose my worries about contamination of one school's waza by another are rather angels on pinhead.

Nov 29, 2013

My Word is My Bond

Something at the very core of the budo is the idea of personal responsibility which extends to trust and honour through your word. Or, "you do what you say you're going to do". It doesn't get any more complicated than that, but my goodness is it a hard concept to teach.

You see, if the concept isn't shared by a majority of the population, you end up with lawyers and thief-takers and prisons. You end up with conflicts and war. Think about a global shareholder-owned company moving into a pre-literate area. The company has the law on its side, and that means all the force of an armed government. The locals have their word, and the need to trust strangers at their word until proven otherwise.

Guess who wins?

Organizations (companies) cannot, by their very nature, have honour. People make a big deal about companies being "individuals" but that is of course a fiction. They are not "people" and aren't intended to be. An incorporated company is a way for the owners to avoid responsibility, not a way to create a responsible entity. Liability for a company's actions is limited to the company assets, it doesn't extend to the personal assets of the owners or the employees. Or at least that's the idea. There are some things that cannot be lawyered away but the general philosophy is one of absolving the man from responsibility within the company.

One easy way to see the difference between a company and a man is that there is no such thing as institutional memory. The people at the top change and so you need contracts. A contract is a written agreement in good faith by a certain set of people who all agree on what the language means. The next day the contract is handed over to professionals who start looking for ways to exploit the language. The organization starts to interact with the written contract and honourable men are out of the equation.

Think I'm kidding? Sit in on a union negotiation and see for yourself, as much time is spent on contract language than just about anything else, and that's because it's the language that sets most of the grievances for the rest of the contract term. Organizations must have contracts, but men need not. What I mean is that two men of good will, men who can trust each other, don't necessarily need contracts. A verbal agreement and a handshake can be enough. It's unfortunate that the world isn't always this way.

Of course, when dealing with an organization, "get it in writing" since you are not dealing with a man. When was the last time a bank clerk reached into his own pocket to reimburse you for a mistake the bank refused to correct?

If you just guffawed at the idea a clerk should do such a thing, you demonstrate my point clearly. There is no sense any more that one member should take personal responsibility for the organization. Yet once it was common. Fraternal organizations such as the old charitable groups, or, say, a dojo still have a sense of this, but my University gym long ago converted me from a member to a client and so I expect only as much as I pay for and I give back only money. (To tell the truth, once a member always a member, I still fix little things, I pick up litter, I still sweep floors and clean, but I see little of that anywhere else in the gym).

Personal Responsility:

Let's break it down. First, budo is about personal responsibility, not group dilution of blame, not looking to your parents or the extended family of "society" to do for you, but a personal duty to act and to "own" that action. Nobody else, just you to the extent that you are able.

It's interesting to look into the psychological literature and the self-help world and see just how much of it has to do with self-empowerment and other such terms which come down to personal responsibility.

So what's this got to do with budo? Well who do you figure is going to defend you against that right cross coming toward your head? Your member of parliment? Your travel agent? And who is going to control the force with which you throw your opponent to the ground? The police? Your lawyer?

Budo teaches you to act, for yourself and with due care for those around you. If you do not take personal responsibility the consequences are immediate and usually painful. There is no room for excuse and justification in the dojo, no room for advocacy groups and any sort of dogma, there's just flesh against flesh with consequences for acts.

Of course it's up to the student to expand this small world of "self-empowered fists and feet" to the wider world at some point, but a well-run dojo can be a great incubator of honourable men.

Compare this with the attitudes held by helicopter parents and entitled kids in other schools around you. Are teachers allowed to fail your kids? To tell them that they are lazy and selfish and unaware of their job in the two-way street that is education? I got the strap for disrupting the class in elementary school and my only concern at the time was that my mother would be upset. Turns out she just laughed at me so all was good. Corporal punishment at school and a parent who doesn't sympathize? Unthinkable in our enlightened age.

Your kid coming back from karate practice with a black eye? If it's a well-run school with proper supervision I'm not going to be storming into anyone's office demanding to know why the sensei didn't jump in front of that punch for my little flower. Of course being the type to figure it's my job to create a good environment, I'm going to be checking out that karate school before my kid gets there. Too late when he's crippled and I'm calling a lawyer to sue someone. Money doesn't fix the harm I caused by not paying attention in the first place does it?

Organizations may be designed to discourage personal responsibility but in the martial arts there is still a remainder of honour. I have handed sale items to folks from a seminar sales table and said "send me the payment later". The money is usually there before the day is over. It BOTHERS martial artists not to pay their debts promptly, lest they forget to do it later. Leaving something undone gnaws away at the innerds until it's done, because that's a word given, that's a promise unfilled, that's being an honourable man and honour means something to a martial artist, honour is trust.

I have a sensei who paid expenses out of his own pocket to cover for an organization that refused to do so. He paid to cover the honour of those who had none and I still shake with fury every time I think about that.


Trust means relying on others to do as they say, as they promise. In a sparring match or during kata you have a responsibility to defend yourself and not harm your partner. Fine for you but you have to trust that your partner has the same idea of responsibility in his mind.

You trust yourself, you trust your partners. You give your partner the benefit of the doubt (trust) for as long as they live up to that trust. If they crank your wrist or break your fingers with their bokuto out of carelessness rather than a mistake, they lose your trust and perhaps lose you as a partner. You can't get to certain levels of practice without huge trust in your partner. Trust has demonstrable value in the dojo.

Try to imagine a written contract for a jodo kata. "I promise to swing the sword such that I try to take your head off but won't if you screw up, and in return I promise to pay you money if I don't stop".... No, I'll use the old ways, and go full out with a partner who has proven over the years that he will do just that. Someone I can read, someone who I can trust.

Trust yourself, trust others. In a world without lawyers and contracts that's the way it has to be. How did it ever change? Trial by combat comes to mind. The big man you put yourself under for protection (you know, the guy you elected to keep your taxes down) can't figure out which of you two subjects is telling the truth, so he says "let god decide" and makes you fight. Eventually some rich dude persuades his buddy the king to let him hire a substitute to fight for him. Give it a few years and you have the legal profession (and whoever hires the best substitute fighters still wins).


We come finally to honour, that thing everyone talks about but nobody seems to understand. Taking our little walk so far we come to the conclusion that honour is just trust. You can't buy it, you can't inherit it, you certainly don't deserve it, you have to earn it through your word and through the trust you have built up with those around you. You have as much honour as you have proven you are worth. You are a man of your word, you do what you say you will do.

There are reasons but no excuses:

If you say you're going to do something you must do it. You may get sick, you may have a competing duty but you must do what you said you would do. This my father taught me as something needed to become a man. "A man does what he says". It's that simple. It's a matter of trust, a matter of honour.

If you can't do something it's a shame. "It's a shame". Doesn't sound so bad does it? Of course not, shame isn't a problem these days, but what is a shame? It's what is there when you don't do what you say you will do. It's something inside your guts that twist them and it's not something that you should go to a psychologist or a "grief expert" to get rid of. It's something you leave there as a lesson you never forget, you try to learn from your shame.

If you can't do something you explain why you can't do it, you apologize. Of course you do, only a villain would give their word and not even warn about breaking it. That way leads to lost battles and death as one of your Earls fails to show up with his men. Of course you explain when you can't do what you said you would do, but this is not absolution. There is no absolution for breaking your word, ever.

As my Aikido sensei once told us "There are reasons but no excuses". That blew a hole into my head and has lived there for many decades.
People ask me why I still do things even when I'm losing money... because I said I would.

Nov 28, 2013

Grading Time Again

It's that time of year again when the students schedule all day classes and tell me that I have to stop indulging myself with koryu to teach them some seitei. I tell you if I had my way we'd go back to one grading a year rather than two. I just get a full head of steam up and have to come to a screaming halt to go back to reading the book to the class.

This year I started as always with the etiquette and was stunned to find that nobody knew it. Who's teaching these guys? Three hours later and we're still trying to pound it into the body because etiquette is one of the ways you can fail your ikkyu test. The uniform is the other so yesterday we spent an hour learning how to get dressed.

Fail for uniform and etiquette you say? Sure, what else could you fail for on your very first test with no minimum practice time required? Etiquette and dress are simple, do what we say and show us and you pass. If you can't do the etiquette or dress yourself it's not your fault, it's the fault of your teacher but as the challenger you're the one who "pays for it". Don't worry, failing your test means you haven't shown the panel what they wanted to see, there's nothing more to it than that, you're not a bad person if you fail, you are just a bad judge of character for practicing with a sensei who can't remember to teach you etiquette and how to dress.

The later grades don't get much more complex than that by the way, the gradings are all about showing the panel what they want to see. There are books and videos and seminars and more books and videos and seminars that you can attend and they will all tell you what you need to do to pass. You go in front of the panel and you show them what they want to see and you pass. How hard is that?

What's hard is if you have opinions on what your art should be, what it should look like. This is where most folks get into trouble, thinking that.... well just thinking in the first place. The guys on the panel all agree that your art should look like what they tell you it should look like. If you go in front of them to grade you have accepted their judgement on your peformance. They get to say whether or not you have come up to the minimum standard as defined by them.

You see any room for discussion there?

What is the purpose of grading? To pass. It's budo after all, and that means learning how to win, in a grading, pass is win so figure out how to pass. That means figuring out what the panel wants to see and doing that. At higher grades it means getting your face in front of all the panel members whenever you get the chance and especially getting your face in front of the top guy. Go to every seminar the top guy attends for at least a year before your 5dan test, and at least two years before your 6th.

"Politics" some say at this point. Doing what someone else says you should do in order to get ahead. Yes.... and? The purpose of grading is to pass. The question you need to ask is not what grading is for, but why you are grading. If you don't have a good idea but are grading anyway, think of it as a way to demonstrate to yourself that you can move the sword in a very prescribed way. The tip goes exactly here, the hips are exactly there. How's your control?

Up to 5dan that's about it. Beyond that you get into the fun stuff that you learn in koryu but if you're at a 6dan challenge you've already figured out why you're grading. If not, time to think about it.

You know, I still have students who ask why they have to do seitei and koryu differently. Why do I tell them to move the sword this way for one school and that way for another? Fundamentally that's a confusion about what the two schools are, or rather a confusion of the two, a thinking that they are one thing. They are taught in the same dojo but they are not one thing. You don't mix them. Now if, after hearing that, you still figure you should be able to do seitei like you do koryu, you're just habit-ridden and too lazy to work at separating them.

If you don't want to do two schoools, don't want to play the politics game when grading, don't want to go through the stress of grading, don't. Just do Koryu. Don't get me wrong, I sit on the panel so I obviously had a reason for grading and being part of the system but if you can't see any reason for you to be part of it, don't be. If you don't like seitei, don't do it.

But the pre-grading seitei classes are going to be a bit boring for you.

Nov 26, 2013

Getting Beat

Usually, when we teach we move it down a notch or three so that we are demonstrating the points in the kata cleanly and simply, and at a level just above that of the student.

I've used the opposite method in iaido to pull senior students up a notch, by facing them and doing alternate kata. In this case I don't move down to allow them to follow ("teaching mode") but rather I crank it up and force them to chase me. It's not really about the technique but about the energy that moves back and forth between us as we trade kata. It's very clear that I expect the students to keep up and try to beat me in this case but nevertheless it's a training tool.

So in non-contact arts where it's see/do the usual practice would be to keep it simple and clean, but when trying to encourage the student to another level of practice, you crank it up more toward "competition" levels and make them chase you. Not coming down to meet them but moving away to force them to follow.

On the other hand, you can see this concept in a more contact-oriented kata school like jodo, where you can vary the energy and even the contact level with students to stay just a little ahead of them, encouraging them to keep up. A senior can often control the junior's level just by the energy blasted out through their kiai.

Students beat me all the time, and that pleases me to no end. If they weren't occasionally better than I am I'd be worrying about my teaching ability. As they get more experienced, they do it more and more often.

It's very difficult to tell, with non-competitive arts, who is "winning" at any particular time in a class and so I'm not sure they even know that they're better than I am. The exercise I mentioned above is actually to get them to understand when they're "there".

It's important for students to get the idea that they can move past sensei, one of the toughest barriers to the advancement of the art is the idea that sensei will always be better. Sensei will always be sensei but at some point, if only due to age, student will be better.

In kendo the glimpses you get when you know you've put one in on sensei help you to understand that, in iai it's difficult.

In Aikido (my experience) and other arts that are "non-competitive" it's pretty easy for sensei to fool himself and the students into believing he's unbeatable. You do it by arranging the instruction to your own strengths and if you're really ego-driven, you manage to conceal even the glimpses of weakness by simply telling the students they didn't understand what you were trying to teach.

In Jodo or the paired-kata sword koryu the techniques are defined and so it's harder to change the rules on the fly. There students can, over the years, get to know when they're getting a step on sensei. At first it's on days when he's a bit slow, maybe hurting, but later it becomes apparent that the gap is narrowing and the "wins" show up when the student finds himself easing up so sensei can keep up.

As a sensei, one can sometimes get the idea that the students are stealing your energy to get in on you. You are pulling them along until almost the end when they suddenly get the jump, like drafting in a bicycle race. You have to ask if this is competition in tournament or when you are in class. In class a hell of a lot of the energy comes from sensei, and sensei is in "teaching mode", even when practice is pretty intense. In other words, you really don't (despite fears of ego) care if he gets one in on you. But the student is trying his best, after all you are sensei and he's going to go full out if he's good.

On the other hand, when a higher rank is in the room you're not the top of the energy chain any more, not responsible for the rest of the room so that frees you up to concentrate on your own practice. You're also concentrating so as not to disappoint your betters. In that case you simply climb up the energy ladder and push off once you're at the top.

This is far different of course from the aikido class where the beginner fiddles around for a couple minutes until you get bored and put your wrist into nikkyo (nikajo) at which point he cranks the bejeepers out of it. That's just your excited puppy widdling on the floor.

Don't think this can't happen in a kata based weapon practice, I spoke of this at the last jodo class where some of the students were a bit fuzzy during the beginning of a kata but when they got to the yada yada (that's the last part of a lot of kata, kuri tsuke, tsuki and honte uchi) they suddenly took off like a rocket. "Oh, I know it from here! Better put all the energy of the kata into this last bit." Nobody got hurt but I figured it was a teaching moment, a plea to pay attention to your partner to make damned sure he is awake and ready to blast off with you. It's not always the senior that gets hurt by the way, over the years they learn to watch beginners pretty carefully, and some of them find nasty little ways to repay those end of technique crankings. I used to have a way of landing on feet with my knees that was pretty effective in getting beginners (and I must admit, quite a few seniors) to back off on the nikkyo crank.

But hurting sensei by acceleration at the end of a technique is not beating him. I'm looking for students to knock me off balance at the moment we start moving toward each other, and keeping me on my heels for the entire kata, just beyond the place where I can recover. Now that's a beautiful thing, I'm getting choked up thinking about it right now.

Full circle, from beginner being used as a rag doll by sensei, to sensei, being used as a rag doll by your student.

Just so you folks don't start thinking these posts are from the goodness of my heart, I'll remind everyone that they are ads for the business. As such, I'm going to offer you guys a discount coupon now on the war clubs that you will find in their own section of the "one of a kind" page at http://sdksupplies.com/ Email me (it's on the site) and use coupon number fb-1330.60-wc to get 60% off (shipping is extra Brenda says).

Nov 21, 2013

Selling Out

I've written, co-written and edited quite a few books in my time. Five, no 7? on Iaido, one on Jodo, two on Niten Ichiryu, two on self defence, one on the psychology of martial arts... as I said, a few of them.

Some of them sell a few copies a year, most of them don't. None of them are "published" in the sense of being with a company... well that's not actually true, a translated version of the Niten Ichiryu manual was published in German a few years ago. Never heard again how it sold, haven't even seen a copy to tell the truth, but I never expected to after reading the contract.

Publishing companies are money making enterprises, and typically, authors are paid after the expenses of producing the book are covered. I've got no problem with that, but I've also got no real interest in seeing my books in hardcover on the shelves. In fact I'm pretty sure I never got ISBN numbers for my books. Just another vanity project author is me, write them, print them myself, sell them off my website (at least some of them, you'll also find some free e-books there at: http://sdksupplies.com/cat_manual.htm ) Probably made way more that way than I'd ever have made being signed by a big martial arts publisher.

Also never had any of those cheezy covers designed, the ones that make the books fly off the shelves, the ones serious budoka get really upset about when they see them.

Thing is, books are published by publishing companies to make money, not to enlighten the masses, and they've got to sell bags and bags of copies before the author starts to make any significant money on them, if ever.

Add to that the sad little fact that the vast majority of the decision on whether or not to buy a book is made by what the cover looks like, and you've got a very important decision to make. You want to sell books, you put a cover on there that's going to sell the book. I suspect most publishers know their market and how to sell their authors.

There's obviously other ways to do it in these days of the internet and with self-publishing if you want creative control, but if you go mass market with a publishing house, you do what's good for business.

The same thing goes for magazines, I've seen a hell of a lot of well-intentioned, well researched and well written mags start up and go down over the last 30 years. Was chief editor for the last two issues of one (Martial Arts Features and Profiles) that died after expanding into the United States. Lost $4000 getting the last print run done if I remember right.

What's still on the newstands?

If you want to see your book in the book store, figure out what sells and get over it. Me, I'm OK with my non-designed covers and cerlox bound books. Apparently so are all but one of the folks who have bought them. Yes, I once had a book returned because it was "not a professionally produced book" which meant perfect (glue) binding which would have cost a fifth of the cerlox binding. Cerlox? You know, the kind you can fold out flat and drop on the floor while practicing.

But hey, for the right advance from a publishing house I'll sell any of them tomorrow!

PS: Wait, I lie, I just remembered another professional book! I have a photo assistant credit on a kendo book published out of South Africa, that one was produced for a flat fee and I think I made $300! I've even got a copy around the house somewhere.

Flat fees are great, I'll write a new book tomorrow for anyone who wants to pay up front for it. Will even do the photography. I'm serious, it's coming in to writing season (too cold to grind wood in the shop).

Nov 19, 2013

Play Nice

Often I hear that folks from two lines of the same sword school will have trouble practicing together, that it is dangerous because one of them is likely to move in a way not expected by the other.

Sort of like putting a Toyota crankshaft in an Audi engine I guess. But kata aren't machines and we aren't robots. The very fact that two lines of practice do the kata in two different ways means that the kata are not immutable things, they are capable of being done in more than one way. Unless of course you assume one way is wrong and the other correct. But if you assumed that, surely you would not be practicing with the wrong folks would you? Except maybe to prove them wrong? With the assumption that kata are then, not cars, perhaps we can find a way that one can fit two different students into one practice, at least for the short term while they practice together. "Oh, you cut in that angle, OK go ahead and I can block this way instead of my usual and we can go on from there."

Pretty much all budo practice is involved with paying attention to what's happening, at least as far as I can figure. If you're paying attention to your partner during a defined partner practice, and he moves his weapon in a different angle than you expect, perhaps you can adapt to that? If you are both just doing your memorized dance steps as fast and hard as you can, I can see how one would get cracked over the head if the other moves in an unexpected way. But seriously, what about when your buddy in the same class forgets which kata and starts doing another one? Sure, same crack on the head.

Going back to the idea that one way to do a kata is correct and one wrong, I think we get to the real problem with practicing cross-line. Folks that are "doing it wrong" will need correction yes? And your way is so superior that you dare not modify the practice in any way.

Competitive stubbornness will certainly get someone's fingers broke.

Nov 18, 2013

Talkng Over the Backyard Fence

My head starts to hurt and my eyes cross every time I see someone talking about "lines" and their soke. Life just isn't as simple as we'd like it to be and there just aren't such clean definitions to make.

Most of the koryu discussions on the net seem to be about lineage... although perhaps that's because there really isn't much else to talk about except whether or not we can shoehorn everything into simple definitions.

Why, folks say, wouldn't the various Menkyo Kaiden start their own "lines" or rename their art something else? After all they've got "full transmission" and so they are a the "ri" or leave part of their training... but why would they?

These guys know each other, the world isn't all that big. Some of them doubtless like others more or less well, but they do talk to each other, they don't live on different planets.

There's a backyard conspiracy of the old guys you know, we talk over the fence while you guys are at school. When you get home you go online and start telling everyone what you learned that day. That's fine, but when the gossip starts... well.

I was teaching a class one day many years ago... looked around and realized that there were guys in there who had been teaching classes 30 years ago that included wet behind the ears green belts who were now heads of organizations with thousands of students.

Here's the thing, there are lots of guys around who know where the bodies are buried, and some of them actually know how to use a computer so don't assume that you can claim special knowledge without having your chain jerked tight.

Don't speak for your sensei, he can speak for himself.
Don't speak for your club unless you run the thing
Don't speak for your organization, the guys in charge can do that if they want.
Speak for yourself, by all means, but make it clear to yourself and others that you speak from your own experience, and be prepared to have your nose slapped with a newspaper if you deserve it.

Nobody knows more than an 18 year old, except maybe a 14 year old, but the 60 year olds might just be found in a class (with a 30 year old sensei), acting just like a beginner. You know, being quiet, listening carefully, trying really hard to learn rather than show how much they know.

You may wonder why those 60 year olds don't post on the internet................... Sometimes we are elsewhere sharing a laugh with each other, shaking our heads at the presumption of our students who surely know "the answer".

I have been known to say "leave the 18 year olds alone, it's the very last time in their lives that they'll "know, absolutely know" what's wrong with the world and how to fix it... life will smack them in the mouth soon enough". Perhaps that's why us old farts don't sit on the youngsters too often, but the youngsters ought to remember that we're not deaf or blind, and that the very people you may be talking about are people we've been out drinking beer with.

Here's a quote from a post I wrote eight or nine years ago:

"As an example of who knows whom, gyrfalcon there gives an interesting quote about experts... I happened to be interested enough in who he is to check out his affiliation. Say hi to John for me Yulin. I know one of Yulin's sensei from somewhere around 1987, have known the JSS from a bit earlier. I believe John introduced me to a fellow down on the east coast who now teaches iaido under the Roshukai, which is an organization Hyaku knows well, who also knows Imai and Iwami, and who is also a Brit who knows Trevor and Don who knew Bill who recently passed away, who introduced me to Haruna. I seem to recall that John also introduced me to John from Texas who teaches loads of folks who post on here all the time. John knows Ted of the CIA in Vancouver who is also a member of the CKF and who knows another CKF sensei in Vancouver who knows Iwata of the Roshukai.....

Now most of the old guys will know who I'm talking about above because we all know each other by reputation or by association. The above people are collectively members of at least 20 different martial arts organizations and are all related to the sword arts. The point is simply that we can figure out where the bodies are buried. "

It's instructive to note that looking over that rambling bit of "six degrees of separation" I can't see one person who would say that another person on that list doesn't know what they're talking about.

But our students, who have all of 2 or 3 years of practice have no problem making statements that we would never, ever make.

And why? Well I think a lot of the problem can be found in the existance of the "bad budo" forums and websites. The idea that we should be "budo cops" is not particularly healthy. Sure, worry about fakes and frauds but most of what I see is more like witch hunting. It's a very unproductive pastime and can create the impression that "my school is somehow more legitimate than everyone else's".

As Queen Vicky is supposed to have said, "as long as they don't scare the horses..." Your worst 'corner store karatty klass' is providing cheap and reliable babysitting while giving the little beggers a bit of exercise and structure in their lives. I personally don't care if the guy running it has a brown belt from some questionable idiot that awarded himself a sokeship, as long as the kid knows how to give the kids some safe and harmless supervision I've got no problem at all with folks paying a couple bucks an hour to "some guy who's just in it for the money".

The dangerous ones... those you have a responsibility to report to the police, not to a website discussion forum.

Gossip is fine, natural, and will always come back to slap you in the mouth. Remember that everything you ever write will be hanging around in 10 years to come back and bite you on the butt. Your own sensei may be reading and laughing at the things you manage to get into your head. He may even come to your defence but never, ever assume that he does that because he supports your silly comments. He does it because that's his job and trust me, if you continue the rediculous statements in the mistaken impression that he wants you to speak for him, you will be causing him grief and eventually you may be looking for a new place to practice.

Those backyard fences are not high, and they're everywhere.

Nov 17, 2013

No Need for Speed

Driving along behind a transport, sticking to the speed I'm at, I have fun watching all the desparate lane changing as the city zippies try to make it to work on time.

Speeding doesn't work in the city, there are too many stoplights for it to do any good at all. It doesn't matter what speed you are going from red light to red light. The journey time doesn't change whether you travel 20 seconds or 15 between lights and then wait a minute at the light. The only thing that can make a difference is hitting the greens, and how do you do that? If the lights are coordinated I suspect the city won't coordinate them to 10km over the speed limit. The best way to make the greens is to do the speed that is appropriate to the journey, not jackrabbit and brake. Poor gas mileage too.

Even on a speedway you've got to be going a long way for speeding to make any difference, 100 KM an hour is a mile a minute. Go 200km an hour over two miles and you will save 1 minute on your journey. That's assuming zero time to accelerate and brake... one minute.

Budo is the same, students are constantly trying to figure out how to punch or cut faster, as if swinging at where the opponent used to be is better done fast than slow. Better to time your attack to be where the opponent is when he's there, and unless he's already dead or at least not paying attention, that means you don't have to go faster than your opponent, you just need to go fast enough.

Well OK, I'm talking experienced folks here aren't I? Speed does work if you're dealng with beginners or if you can set up your opponent so that he's stuck between two moves, but that only goes so far.

When the lion is behind us I don't have to be fast, just faster than you.

Nov 14, 2013

Take My Sword, Please.

Doing some Aikido sword tonight and we're around the place where we might begin taking it away from each other. It's a traditional way of practice in our neck of the woods, but you have to prepare a little bit. First you have to make sure folks can swing the sword straight, then you have to make sure they are swinging at the right target. Nothing less fun than watching a student try to sidestep a diagonal strike or step to the side only to meet their helpful partner missing them on that side. Two lumps on the head and confusion all around. Sword taking relies on having a partner who really tries to hit you where you stand, helpful partners are seldom actually helpful.

Then of course we have to work on distance, it's no good trying to jump in and take a sword from someone who can already stick it into your chest. Of course when you back folks up to the correct starting distance they find out there is no jumping in from there at all, only waiting for the sword guy to commit.

But... can you really take a sword away from a swordsman?

This comes up time and time again and I keep coming back to the same simple conclusion. If you want to know if you can disarm a swordsman who is competent, find a willing kendo player who has several years under his belt and try it. You won't die of a strike from a shinai but you might learn something about just how fast you can get hit with a stick. No need for speculation or appeals to historical documents at all, just go try it.

If you figure a shinai is faster than a shinken, ask kendo guy to swing both to a men strike from chuden and time it. You'll have all the answer you want when you combine those two tests.

But, I hear, getting out of the way of a sword is no different then getting out of the way of a fist.

Umm, well it's been a while but I seem to recall that for the same degrees of arc per second, a longer radius means the thingie at the circumference is moving faster than the shorter radius. The tip of a cutting sword is moving a lot faster than a fist.

Fist punching is the same as sword thrusting I'll buy, but roundhouse vs tip of sword...

I'll take my chances with the roundhouse.

So why do we do it? Just because it's so difficult. You need proper timing, posture, distance, spirit, arrogance, calmness, discipline... you know, all the good stuff. It's not as if we are training someone for a situation they might actually encounter on the street. In fact, that's why I love teaching the sword, the impracticality. If I wanted to teach realistic stuff I'd be doing a lot more self defence classes.

Nov 14, 2013

Tools of the Trade

The Japanese Budo have a set of equipment that, like most other things from that culture are pretty standardized. Lets face it, the Tokugawa were fiends for standards.

Uniforms tend to be pretty boring, white, black or blue. Hakama or pants and a belt pretty much does it. Tops can be heavy for gripping in arts like Judo or Aikido, or heavy for protection as in Kendo (not all strikes land on the armour) and Jodo. Tops can also be lighter for arts like Karate or Iaido. Then there are the fancy outfits like the montsuki used in kyudo or by some iaidoka, and the robe and belt of the shorinji kempo folks.

Not a lot of room for originality but people do find it, for instance the obi used for iaido can get pretty fancy if the higher-ups don't keep an eye on those students. Me, I got sick of black and white many years ago and started wearing a grey top which of course led to my students making fish-patterned tops and maroon tops and the occasional tie-died or lime green hakama. Mostly though, folks stick with sedate monocolour if they are feeling not-blackorwhite around here.

The weapons tend to get a bit more adventurous. While very few people end up with separate iaito or shinken for different arts, that may be largely due to a small amount of mixing of iaido schools. We've got Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu iaido and Muso Shinden ryu iaido in this area and they are close enough not to tempt any joint students. If they did I suppose folks might end up with two lengths of sword since Shinden blades are on the average, longer than jikiden blades for the same sized student. Any other schools that are practiced around the area are rare enough that folks just use the same blade.

Of course some students have both an iaito and a shinken, and if you hang around long enough you do tend to collect them. The personalized variation comes in the length of course, but the real style is expressed in the fittings (not seen from a distance) and the saya plus sageo (some of whose fluorescent colours can be seen from miles away). I use a very light shinken for iaido, have used it for tameshigiri but if I did a lot of cutting I'd use one of my heavier ones. I know some instructors use both an iaito (to demonstrate mistakes while teaching without cutting themselves) and a shinken (for their own practice).

So yes, depending on what arts you do you might end up with two different iaito or shinken but I suspect that would mostly be your own choice. For instance I don't dictate the length of blade for my students, beyond recommending that they might need something longer or shorter if it's interfering with their technique, so if they practiced some other art that demanded a specific blade, and it was within reason for my art, they'd only need one blade.

Bokuto, iaito and shinken are tools to be used when practicing an art, as such you'll use the tool you need. If you need, for instance, a finishing hammer and a framing hammer, you'll have two hammers in the bag.

Now, since we've mentioned bokuto, and since there are several kenjutsu variants around here, you'd think there were a lot of different bokuto floating around. Surprisingly, that's really not the case. I make the things and my own bag tends to be pretty sparsely populated. I use a Niten Ichiryu bokuto for Niten Ichiryu, a Shindo Musoryu bokuto or a Kendo no Kata bokuto for Jodo and Tanjo, and I use an Iwama bokuto for aikido. Three styles of sword and I'm done even if I practice five or six different partner arts.

Actually the way I practice I suppose I could use just one, the light Niten Ichiryu for choice, as it's easiest on the shoulders. While some arts need a big heavy clanger (more akin to a baseball bat than a shinken in shape), I tend to practice arts that allow pretty light contact. I have had so many requests for a "full contact, unbreakable bokuto" over the years that I made a cedar bokuto and practice jodo with it. So far with the "full contact" hits of a shiro kashi jo it's got nothing more than a few shallow dents even though I could break it over my knee. It isn't a very satisfying tool I'm afraid, it goes thnnnn when hit, rather than a nice sharp crack so I don't see it catching on except as a demonstration tool.

Remember, it ain't the tool, it's the tool using the tool... no wait, that's not how it goes... ah

Remember, it's a poor workman who blames his tools.

Nov 12, 2013

Kata are not Dogma

I see the Aikido world is currently embroiled (always) in a discussion of whether Aikido is really budo or not. The crux of the argument seems to be whether or not it is effective as a method of fighting on the street.

I wonder how many folks actually fight on the street, but I would be willing to bet that those who do, and who also study a fighting system, rarely use the techniques as taught in the dojo. The exception to this might be a combat sport like boxing or muay thai where the main techniques are simple and direct and designed for direct application.

Systems that don't really take the 30 years of practice our "budo" arts are said to require.

We have done some heavy bokuto kata training lately, with a weekend seminar and several classes lately and the same discussions of function come up, just not in an explicit way. The students going through the kata ask for the precise angle of a cut and the precise distance to step. I tell them it depends on the opponent.

They swing wildly and break their postures to reach the target and I tell them they have to be precise with their angles and step to the correct distance correctly.

Without knowing it they are going through the technique vs application argument every time they go through a partner kata. Those who see kata as dogma will insist that one can only perform it as taught. No extra steps, no mistakes in distance or timing. After all, this stuff was discovered on the battlefield and handed down unchanged so we can't alter it in any way, we have to force it to work as written.

Those who see only swordfighting will despair at having to perform the kata in ways that just don't seem to work, they will want to change things in mid stream, "what if I cut here instead of there, I'd get him". And well they might but by definition that's not what we're working on at the time so back to the kata they go.

Slowly, slowly they might start to understand that swinging wooden swords at each other is best done in an agreed upon way, with no armour, and bokuto instead of shinai, it's just the simplest way to keep training partners around. But it's a pretty romantic notion to assume that in the alleyway behind the local bar your sword-wielding opponent is going to follow a kata, or even a predictable technique. The kata aren't going to work, but the stuff you learn by doing the kata will... we hope.

Aikido is a strange beast in the budo world, it's mostly practiced in a cooperative way, with the sensei inventing kata after kata during each session, and the students working at things in such a way that they don't break each other's wrists or necks. The range of ways to work this is quite wide, from lots of resistance (and thus lots of hard work trying not to muscle things around) to a sort of airy ballroom dance and all those are fine if they are approached in the right way, as methods to understand the basics underneath the kata. The problem comes with the ones who figure it's dogma, that each technique, each kata is an unchangeable entity. This leads to my least favourite budo moment, where I stand for a moment or two in front of a beginner (or sometimes a senior) who is fiddling around with my wrist, totally oblivious to my other hand balled into a fist waiting to crack him on the head. After this moment of boredom I help turn my wrist into the pretzel the kid is looking for and suddenly, with a light of pure insanity in his eyes, he cranks with all his might. As my wrist makes horrible crunching noises I resist slapping him across the room and say "yes that's the technique, maybe we can work a little bit more on how to get there?"

Aikido doesn't work? I was asked once to show some in a Tae Kwon Do class and had one of my fellow students throw a punch at me, I was going to do irimi nage, and planned to move aside, turning to lead her around and then back up and over to a nice controlled throw. Thing is, when I did the first move to avoid and applied a bit of guiding pressure to the back of her neck she ended up skidding across the floor on her face.

This is not the only time that sort of thing has happened. Aikido doesn't work if you figure you have to do the entire technique as you've been taught, but taking someone's balance at the instant they make contact works a treat. Suddenly turning aside from the force and taking the hilt of your opponent's sword with you also works nice if you're struggling with the jujutsu of iaido (another topic of some small discussion).

Take the balance, step aside from the attack, be precise with distance and timing... I don't know where the disagreement comes from if we understand our budo training to be about these things rather than some dogmatic set of dance steps.

Nov 11, 2013

Life is Messy

I do a lot of solo kata practice in my iai schools, and a lot of partner kata practice in the iai and kenjutsu schools. I get pretty good at it with a good partner, it looks quite spiffy when we get playing with timing and distance and start pushing each other to the edge of control.

I could almost say I'm good at this stuff... no actually I am pretty good at it I suppose. It's not hard to look good with a partner who looks good.

I am also doing a bit of aikido teaching these days and with an advanced level partner who knows how to attack and how to fall down, I'm also pretty good.

Thing is, I keep running up against beginners and all my pretty pretty moves become ugly. Beginners don't follow the script any more than life does, they veer off in strange directions, stop in the middle of an attack with their back turned, fall over way too early or like a plank. No lovely rolls for them, no they go over like a 2x4 board, hitting all at once or straight down on their heads if you let them. It's enough to make an old guy depressed.

Have I learned nothing in 30 years except to be a good dance partner?

Now, in my defence, we did a public demonstration a few weeks ago and I got together with a shoto and one of my seniors (not my regular partner but at least she could cut a straight line at my head) and improvised for ten minutes. Thing is, it was all step out of the way and smack her or poke her or knock her over. No fancy ten move dances on this card, just walk in there and hit her in the head.

Afterward she said "was that Niten Ichiryu we were doing" and it was, to a large extent. Musashi didn't get much more fancy than "walk up and smack him". Problem is, that sort of thing isn't very intersting to the punters, they can see much more entertaining stuff at the movies which is why we should always use 10 or 12 move kata in demonstrations. After all, who's going to spend time learning something they just got shown, step aside and hit him on the head... anybody can do that.

The other thing that bothers me is the treachery of beginners. I tell them to cut straight down on my head, I step to the side as they start to swing down and whack, they hit me on the kidney in some sort of curving sliding strike that I've never seen before. It's distracting to say the least and it disrupts my teaching because now I have to watch what they're doing rather than demonstrate what I want the rest of the class to do.

I mean seriously, have you ever tried to get a class of beginners to cut straight down? It takes months, and you can't let them swing at each other until you're sure they'll hit their partner's head when they're aiming at it. It's been four classes so far with my latest batch and they are getting better, they are within a body-width of their targets aout 60% of the time and sometimes they start the cut from above their shoulders.

Now the other night we were doing some kata that involve both swinging at the upper corner of the head, and the blades meet (so you can go another step further in the kata). Yep, you guessed it, they started flailing at each other's swords like a bunch of kids playing Errol Flynn behind the barn. That's how you get busted bokuto, which I don't usually mind, except that they borrow them rather than buy them.

I made a cedar bokuto and with my usual partner I can go through all 12 the seitei jodo kata "full contact" without much more than a dent but these guys would have it in two at first contact. No finesse at all I tell you.

Now I don't mean to complain, after all this kind of messy isn't quite like the 15 year olds walking by the Tarjjet here (I'm drinking a coffee in Starry-eyes) with their strollers and their 16 year old boyfriends slouching along behind. And honestly, I love the beginners to death, they're so wide-eyed and eager.

If only they hadn't played baseball when they were kids!

Oct 31, 2013

Some Sword Care Basics

To do Iaido you need a sword, either an aluminum iaito or a steel iaito. Both of them need a bit of care in the form of cleaning and oiling.

On an iaito, oil lubricates between blade and skin, aside from the obvious problem with friction and blisters, friction can cause jumping tips and stabs to the fingers from missed noto.

The second thing oil does is make your iaito quiet. The oil gets into the wood in the saya and the blade gets more quiet than when it was new (and you thought your technique was improving!)

"Choji oil" is mostly light mineral oil or similar with a bit of choji, toothache oil is too viscous, and will cause dirt etc. to gum up in the blade and saya. The mineral oil in the pharmacy that is used as a laxitive is similarly viscous, try and get the lighter oil so you don't get as much on everything... including the tsuka.

Tsuka (hilts) need to be cleaned, if it doesn't need to be cleaned you're not practicing enough. Toothbrush and rubbing alcohol will work fine. Soap and water won't hurt but the water soaks into the paper padding in the wrap and stays wet for a long time. 70% alcohol (rubbing alcohol) is a good solvent for the oil and dirt and dries out fast. For a quick clean, try a damp towel, the moisture that goes into the wrap also helps the grip if you have dry palms like I do.

Once cleaned the grip is better, the wrap is fluffier and softer and wicks sweat better, and it's not as slick.

What else... ah yes, glue repairs. Superglue is hard, and can scratch, use regular old white glue. In fact white glue can be used to rescue a wrap that's coming loose (if it's loosening check your technique, if you're moving your hands all over the place on the tsuka... don't). Glue down bits and pieces that are coming loose. You can thin white glue with water and inject it with a needle if you have to, otherwise just work it into the wrap. White glue is flexible.

Similarly, to tighten up the koiguchi, use white glue and a sliver of wood. Some use leather. To prevent your koiguchi from getting loose don't seat your iaito completely into the saya, store it with a spacer between koiguchi and tsuba so that when you thump the kojiro (saya) onto the floor the habaki doesn't wedge into the saya compressing the wood or worse, splitting the saya.

Of course if you're grooving out the saya, fix your technique.

Keep your hands off the knot in the ito at the end of the tsuka, if that comes undone you're buying a new wrap.

If it's rusting, practice more! If it's getting shiny.... good.

Sweat is pretty salty, and can also be very acidic which causes rust. Rust can dive deep into a blade, especially if it's tamahagane, and there's a line of rust-prone steel, you can get it diving right into the blade before you realize it's there.

Lots of uchiko (the white powder in your cleaning kit) will abrade the rust off. Note I said abrasive, don't use uchiko on your iaito which is either polished aluminum or chromed. The abrasion will wear the blade quickly removing your nice hamon lines which are just scratched on.

Another less well known item is "sword cleaning water" which is made traditionally by dripping water through wood ash. Now for the chemists out there that's lye, which is potassium hydroxide.

This basic water helps clean off fats, oils and neutralizes the acid. Potassium hydroxide doesn't leave as big a residue as sodium hydroxide so don't use Draino!

And don't use a high concentration of base if you plan on making this stuff yourself! A small amount of KOH will make plain water VERY basic since there's no buffering capacity... you only need enough base to neutralize the acid. Then you clean it off and dry it well and oil the bejeepers out of it.

Sword polishers use washing soda (sodium carbonate) which is also strongly basic, to keep the blades from rusting while they're working on them. Don't use this yourself if you don't want powdered washing soda all over your blade and inside your saya.

So, for your shinken, always always use uchiko or sword water to clean off the bits of skin, oil and sweat from your blade. Don't just oil the blade like you do an iaito since the oil can just seal the sweat down onto the blade (oil and water don't mix remember), clean off the sweat, then oil.

And yes, I've got pits all down the mune of one of my shinken even though I know all this. It doesn't take long.

Oct 30, 2013

Koan Number One

If you have more than one teacher you will run into contradictions. Or rather, you will hear things that may sound different to your ears.

Many years ago I had one teacher explain in great detail the difference between each level of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iai, the timing of the choice point between cut and don't cut, the height of the cut, the angle of the lift over the head, the timing and position of noto. At around the same time I had another teacher answer my questions about differences between the levels with a puzzled look and the statement "there are no differences".

After a while I came to understand that they were both correct, and I've used this story as a koan for my students and as a reminder to reconcile all my instruction from all my teachers. In very few cases have I found any actual differences between instructors, just different ways of expressing the same underlying principles.

Take a while to think about the koan above if you'd like, then come back and read the rest.

The answer is actually quite simple, and as in most things, is helped by a slightly different definition of the question. Are there differences in the way you perform the kata in each level of MJER? Yes there are and no there are not.

Yes there are, in any physical skill there are levels of ability that can be demonstrated between beginners and more advanced students. To teach efficiently and correctly an instructor will introduce simpler skills before more advanced skills. So in a specific case, we might look at the speed of the noto, the putting away of the sword into the scabbard. Omori ryu / shoden (the first level) starts slow and uses the whole sword during the movement. Oku iai (the third level) uses a very fast noto and about a third of the sword during the movement to line the sword up for this quick insertion. Eishin ryu (chuden) the middle level uses half the sword and a slow insertion, so somewhere in between in skill demand. This is a way to teach progressively and so yes, there are differences in how you perform the kata depending on which set you're doing.

No there are no differences, in any physical skill there are levels of ability that can be demonstrated between beginners and more advanced students. This means that at early days in your training (when you are working on Omori for instance) you will be performing at a certain skill level. As you advance in skill and through the levels you will become more fluent, more able to perform actions swiftly as well as correctly, and so you can perform, say, the noto with speed and efficiency. Does this mean that you have to dumb down your skills when you perform Omori ryu if you can perform Oku iai with superior skills? No of course not. You perform whatever kata you are demonstrating to the limit of your ability, Omori ryu kata have a slow noto and Oku kata have a fast noto, this is the way they are performed, you do each to the best of your current ability.

Oh you say, that's no koan, that's just a bit of a trick in definitions. Well yes, and that's what a koan is, a way to get you to see that the world is mostly full of different rationalizations, different definitions within your head, but is a much simpler place than you might want to believe. Enlightenment is mostly seeing the unity of the cosmos behind the confusion and illusion of definition after all.

Too woo woo? Well go find your own contradicton in instruction and see what you can do about justifying two of your admired teachers telling you different things. It might be that they got together and decided to torture you with a paradox, or it may just be that a small adjustment of definition in your own mind will reconcile the worldview.

Oct 28, 2013

Keys, or Cues.

We're working through koryu iai since only a couple of folks are in the grading stream at the moment. One of the first things the students noticed was the similarity between their koryu and "seitei iai". Not really a surprise since the seitei are standard ways to do koryu kata and those koryu kata came largely from the school we practice.

On noticing this, the students became a bit concerned with how to separate seitei and koryu. Since they are similar, it's easy to mix them together. This is a multi-level topic actually, so let's deal with the easiest first. Don't worry, beginners confuse the two, more advanced students don't. You learn how not to eventually.

If you do two kata that are close to one another you need a cue to separate them. This might be shouting inside your head "do this one not that one" but you will eventually find small differences in how you initially move that will key in the responses of one or the other kata.

For our particular case we are dealing with Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and the Zen Ken Ren Iai. Many years ago one of my teachers went through a list of 24 differences between the first kata (Mae) of these two schools and I could probably still come up with that number. Fortunately, koryu is big, and you can actually get away with just four. From a koryu point of view, here's the four you need. 1: grasp the tsuka left hand then right hand, not together. 2: do not shift the left knee forward when you lift the sword after the initial cut. 3: your left hand comes directly to your saya mouth when you start chiburi (rather than your obi at the hip) and 4: when you do chiburi (shaking the blood off) and rise up, the left foot comes immediately to the right (not after rising). These four points will distinguish our koryu mae from our seitei mae, but please note that number 3 is variable within different MJER lines, with some moving the left hand to the hip rather than the koiguchi.

So use the first difference here to cue yourself when doing mae, both hands at once to the hilt and your body goes into seitei mae, left hand then right and you go into koryu mae. Or back up and split them when you sit down. Seitei Mae is a fist to a fist and a half between the knees, koryu is two fists. Or look at the position of the hands on the thigh, or back up even further where the tsuka kashira of koryu mae is in the center of the body while the seppa is in the center for seitei. Pick whatever works for you and use that as your key.

This works for us, other koryu lines may or may not have those particular cues to use, so look at your own school and find something that suits. As I said, koryu is big, it can accomodate a lot of variation and can include doing the kata exactly as it is done in seitei. Really. What you need to avoid, in fact, is taking the koryu over to the seitei rather than worry about seitei in your koryu. Your koryu is between you and your sensei, there is no external standard, no grading, no authority which can impose standards. It is MJER until it is not, it is correct until it doesn't fit the riai, then it is something else. Or it is MJER until it is named as a different thing (as in Muso Shinden Ryu). There is a continuous line between, say, uke nagashi of seitei, MJER and MSR (ryuto). Do the three one after another and you'll see what I mean.

Eventually, as I just hinted, you might even get to the point where you really don't care what the differences are since you're more concerned with what the kata teach... but that's quite a long way off, for now and the next several years you'll be very concerned with "differences".

Oct 27, 2013

Who Does This Stuff?

I was once asked how many people studied a koryu historically. One that I have looked into was the Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo.

Nagatomi Koshiro Hisatomo (1717-1772), the seventh headmaster of one of the three lines extant at that time had 300 students

During the Bakumatsu, or the mid-nineteenth century, the three lines of Muso-ryu were very active. There were eighteen menkyo holders in the Haruyoshi line, fifteen in the Jigyo and nine in the "true path".

Shiraishi Hanjiro (1842-1927) was one of six people eventually awarded a joint densho between the first two of those lines, the third having disappeared by then. Shiraishi was originally a student of Hirano Kichizo and Sada Teisuke of Haruyoshi. He later received mokuroku from Okuma Shinpachi of the Jigyo line. His training before receiving the joint menkyo was from Yoshimura Hanjiro. Shiriashi was the sole instructor of Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo by the end of the Meiji.

Shimizu Takaji began training with Shiriashi in 1913, at the age of 17. In 1918, at age 23, he received his mokuroku (scrolls of transmission) and two years after that his menkyo certificate. In 1939 during the Pacific War Shimizu went to Manchuria to teach jo and one author states that he eventually taught jo to 1,500,000 people.

So the answer would be... it varies with the political situation (Jodo was big in Fukuoka where it originated, until the Han system was disbanded, and then the numbers collapsed), war and peace (the imperial army studied Jodo so all the recruits were "students" of koryu), the instructor (popular instructor in a big city with good connections and publicity means lots of students), the organization (Shimizu joined jodo to the ZNKR which brought in a lot of students) and the definition of "koryu" (if ZNKR jodo is disallowed, jodo is a lot smaller than it "is").

Any organization, koryu, modern, fraternal or what have you, tends to fragment once it gets to a certain size. It's the natural way of things, only an extremely good leader can keep things together for long after a critical mass has been reached.

The other way fragmention is resisted is through an external (extra-lineage?) force, such as you see in the FIK/ZNKR, which can (and has) actually put national Kendo groups back together after a split. The "glue"? ... if you're "out" from the FIK you don't send competitors to the world kendo championships. There are other kendo organizations but they are dwarfed by the FIK simply because of the mechanics of the World Championships.

Few such forces exist in the koryu outside of "legitimacy" which is why it's so tediously argued about. Papers, signifying objects that are passed along, grading systems, or just plain old publicity can all be used in the arguments of legitimacy. One "external force" this legitimacy may be predicated upon, is the existance of an outside sanctioning or pseudo-sanctioning body which may declare one group or another "legitmate". Barring membership in these organizations, the groups are left to rely on such things as.... say.... the internet to argue their legitimacy.

Oh, and it also depends on whether or not you count "lineages" other than the "legitimate lineage" as part of the koryu. There isn't a mainline jodo soke any more, nobody claimed that after Shimizu's death. I've trained with 6 or 7 Menkyo holders from both so-called "lines" (Tokyo and Fukuoka), who all accept that anyone doing jodo is doing jodo, so the lineage thing isn't a problem there. 
I have met and trained with 2 or 3 of the 5 or 6 claimants (self or otherwise) to being the soke of MJER iaido. If you add all of the lines it's pretty big, if you include only the line with the papers, and declare that anyone not directly under the current papered soke is not MJER, than it's smaller. HOWEVER there IS NOT any claim that I know of by any of the big MJER line heads that they're the only legitimate MJER bunch, so it remains at the larger numbers of students. 
Talking about split lineages is really only opening up a can of worms and to go back to the Jodo example I started with, there was a time when one of the 3 lines was broken, and one of the heads of the other two lines transferred the techniques and teachings of the broken line to a student who then re-established it. For large arts, "Legitimate vs otherwise" arguments tend to come from novice students who see the world in simple black and white, us and them terms, and not from the top folks who all know each other and usually just leave each other alone to do their thing. For smaller arts, see the comments below on legitimacy and its importance to maintaining group cohesion. 

Oct 25, 2013

Seminar Taught

Somebody says "I want to learn koryu" someone else says "lots of people want to learn koryu" and yet another chimes in with "you have to go to Japan because that's where the real teachers are". You can't learn it at a seminar and if you do then you're "seminar taught".

And I say "there's an easy way to try it, where you can attend without jumping through hoops, you can go to a seminar and see if you like koryu since you haven't practiced it before, there's no excuse for you not to go check it out"... and very few people come.

In fact, there isn't that much of a desire for koryu, just a few folks with a lot of time on their hands at work chatting on the net.

Now if you want to start breaking down koryu into those who come in through secret passageways in the backwoods of Japan and those who come in through the front door, by all means have at it, but it's not much of an argument because it doesn't fall into neat and tidy groups like that.

I fell into koryu iaido at an Aikido seminar in 1983, I later stumbled over my iaido teacher "locally" (2 hours away) and then did things like travel to the UK for seminars until we had enough people gathered up around here to have seminars so that we could raise our level of practice. Through instructors I met in Iaido I started practicing Niten Ichiryu and then Jodo, and continue to bring instructors from Japan and elsewhere for seminars. I don't travel much any more, I prefer to spend that same money bringing an instructor here to teach 40 or 140 students. Me alone getting taught or 100 people getting taught... it's not much of a decision. My students tell me I should go travel and get taught so I can improve and be awarded more rank and get more respect and... I tell them to go themselves, I'll do what I've always done, practice in my own dojo, sleep in my own bed, take seminar instructors to see Niagara Falls. Some of my students have been in Japan for decades, learning the "proper way", maybe one day they'll come back and teach me.

That's how I did it, starting 30 years ago and how I still do it. I honestly don't care how anyone else does it. My point is pretty simple, if you are young and are thinking of organizing your life around "koryu" I strongly advise knowing what it is you're doing. Go check it out... WHEREVER... and see if it's worth it.

In 30 years I've seen an awful lot of keeners study the arts for a couple weeks and then wander off to do other things. In general, the ones with the strongest conviction when they arrive tend to be the ones that wander off soonest (they have preconceptions I'm guessing). The ones who stay are the ones who are right next door and find it easy to drop in at class time.

In 20 years I haven't seen anything to suggest to me that as a general rule it's a good thing to try and learn long-distance... even if I seem to have done that. I began by doing Aikido three times a week at the dojo next door.

I recommend that anyone thinking about koryu practice do aikido, judo, kendo or karate at the dojo next door for a few years. If you're still interested in koryu keep your eyes open, it will show up.

I promise you won't be crippled by all your "bad habits" acquired from years of dedicated practice of one of the stodgy old boring standbys.

On the other hand, there's a weekend seminar in koryu iaido being hosted in Peterborough very shortly... drop me a line and I'll give you the contact information... if you pass the entry test of course.

Oct 24, 2013

Shibumi and Kigurai

Yesterday I got a question on shibumi. I had to go look it up, I do remember the word but I haven't heard it for years. According to Wikipedia it is something like plain, simple, unadorned skill. If you've got it you make what you do look effortless. The example discussed yesterday was someone who learns a movement quickly and can soon perform it better than the person he learned it from. That's the effortless part.

In that sense, I am tempted to call that shibumi but I'm not sure it's all that valuable as budo. Of course it's a great advantage to be able to pick up techniques quickly, I was pretty good at "stealing" movements myself, having been one of the chief rag dolls in Aikido for several years will get you the ability to pick up not only what a technique looks like, but the balance and timing of it as well. In iaido I was able to extend that to being able to feel what was happening in a technique I was looking at. All of which (combined with the habit of reading ahead in the textbooks so I knew the rough shape before being taught it) combined to make it look like I was easy to teach. I suppose that would be shibumi.

But from a perspective of decades now instead of years I know that's not all that important. You learn fast or you learn slow but in 20 years you learn it regardless. In fact, learning something easily is not always the best way to understand what you've just learned. People often confuse form for function, even in arts like Aikido where you're throwing someone else, there seems to be an idea in most beginners that if you just do the technique right the throw will work. It sometimes does, but it sometimes does not. There's another person hanging off your arm and he isn't always in the position you think he is. Iaido and kata based partner arts like jodo are especially prone to the trap of technique, of thinking that being able to perform a sequence of movements without thinking about it is some sort of end point to the training. "I know kata number 5 and I can do it really fast with my partner". Umm, no. I watched a video of some kids who were doing koryu jo kata really really fast. The comment was that they were "really good". Well they "knew" kata that I don't, and they obviously practiced the movements a lot, there was no hesitation going to the next step and all that stuff... but that was the problem. They were doing two halves of a shape, their timing and balance was not there, one person responding to an attack before the attack was made. You know the sort of thing, it's mindless alright, but it's not "no-mind", it's the repetitive motion of the assembly line, or of typing. Give them a new keyboard and there's a problem.

Learning a technique is a multi step process, the first step is to be able to do it without thinking about it, to memorize it, but that's just the first step. Later you have to learn how to use that technique in all the various ways it could be used. To use it against people who aren't cooperating, against big folks and little folks, when you're not quite on balance, when you're struggling to keep up. In other words, no matter how talented a mimic you are, there's a need to practice for a dozen years.

That's kigurai, the ability that comes from long practice. Students ask "how do I show kigurai" and it never fails to amuse the sensei. You can't "show" kigurai, you can only have it, like you have a beard, it's something that grows. So when it says in the grading manual that you have to show kigurai to pass your 6dan it really means "has this student practiced hard for 15 years?" It is something that you can see, but it's not something that you can learn, its something that you earn.

So making a pot effortlessly is shibumi, if you make a whole bunch of pots of the same shape and you have talented fingers you might have shibumi in making that pot, but you might not have shibumi as a potter. If you make pots for 30 years and someone asks you to make a new shape of pot, you just make it. That's kigurai, that's also shibumi.

Am I right on the terminology of Japanese culture? I dunno, but I am quite certain that a talented youngster may show effortless technique, but still be at the beginning of his learning. The old master has an entirely different kind of effortlessness.

Oct 17, 2013

Elite Fighting Styles

Sunday morning at the cabin and we're listening to CBC where Micheal Enright is doing a story on rudeness at classical music concerts, you know, those horrid people who cough, unwrap candies and get the stinkeye from other audience members if they clap between movements.

My daughter Lauren went ballistic. She is in her second year at Laurier for music and would very much like to make a living when she graduates. Get over yourselves she said of the high powered performers on the show, after pointing out that if we want classical music audiences in the future we're going to need cup holders in the seats. She pointed out that at the time the music was written audiences threw rotten fruit at the stage if it was bad, what's changed now?

Well what's changed is money, as a student she can't afford to go to the performances she's not playing. Classical music is the realm of the rich and that isn't going to change any time soon without some adjustments in attitude, but then again, why would the elites want to change anything? "You're chasing my audience away" says my girl, and yes, they are. It isn't elite if the common folk are there.

But that's the audience, and those complaining on the radio are the performers so what's that about? Well says Lauren, they figure they're "entitled" to their respectful silence.

Mind you, this is a girl who laughes in concerts while the rest of the audience is doing their silent respect thing. She hears a progression the composer put down on paper to chuckles at the thought of pulling the wool over the audience's eyes and she laughs at his joke. The elites? They don't get it any more than the common folk do.

To be fair, she points out that a symphony isn't miked up and halls can only project so much volume, if you're not somewhat quiet you won't hear the music and if you're not there to listen you're only there to be there.

The point? Budo is as full of elitism as any classical music crowd in the hall.

You need an audience in any art, our budo included, and you as a performer are not there if they are not. Yes we do have performances, demonstrations are important to what we do, they give us a way to test ourselves, to attract students and to interact with our fellow budoka. Much more civilized than "dojo storming".

Silence in a performance? I remember a demonstration years ago in Ottawa where my teacher was asked to teach at a jujutsu seminar. The final public show was in an arena and it was loud. Or loud for every other music-filled enthusiastically jumping and kicking demo out there, but when we came up with no explanation, no music, just quiet concentration and swords swinging, the place went silent. It was actually a bit disturbing to realize that the audience was in fact, paying attention. They went silent because the performance asked for quiet and they were loud when the performance was exuberantly loud.

Earn your silence. Of course it does require an audience with some knowledge of what's going on, if they are there only because that's what rich folk do (patronize the symphony) you might be wasting your effort but who wants an audience like that?

But are we so non-elitist? Hah. I think at times we want to reserve our old schools for ourselves only and never mind if there is another generation coming along. You have to go to Japan to learn this stuff, you have to absorb the Japanese culture, including learning ancient Japanese so you can read the original documents in the original. You have to make sure only the right sort get into the school... you get the picture. If we go on with that where's the audience for the next generation of teachers? Where are their students?

Classical music isn't all that interesting to the general public, it takes some serious effort in the age of Lady Gaga and Justin Beleiber to understand those progressions that Lauren laughs at and there are few enough that want to put in the effort without chasing them away with "rules of behaviour" in a concert.

Classical budo is similarly uninteresting to the general public who figure the UFC is the ultimate test of martial arts ability. Why would we want to chase away the "samurai wannabes" the "anime kids" the "video game victims" and all the other scornful names we use for our potential future teachers? It's hard enough to get into the mindset of our art, few enough make it in with encouragement, why would we try to chase away the interested?

Go thou forth and demonstrate to the masses whenever you get the offer. See if you can get them shouting and see if you can make them silent. At the end sign up the kids in the goofy outfits (ours aren't?) and see if we can get the arts through the next 20 years.

Oct 13, 2013

When is a Ryu?

Not what is, but when is it a ryu? Sure there are guys out there making brand new "ryu", but that doesn't mean they deserve the name. A ryu is the lineage, a school like the Suzuki violin system is the lineage. If Suzuki had taught a few students and that was the end of it, we would not define it as a ryu, a school perhaps but not a system, a lineage.

I believe I said it first about 15 years ago in an article but I'll say it again. The test of any school (Ryu or not), old, new, real, fake is it's existance 3 or 4 generations from now. I've been around long enough to watch several "secret, special and rare" lineages fail to survive their originator or current headmaster, and the boring old standardized, "popular" stuff continue to roll along.

Of course I have defined a ryu (translation something like "flow" or "river") as a lineage and you don't have one of those, by definition, except after some generational change so big deal. Well, yes, big deal. A teacher may be talented and charismatic and have lots of students, but to go into another generation the teachings must have something beyond the talent of the sensei. Those schools that survive tend to have a consistent logical basis that their later teachers can understand, a graduated teaching system that goes from simple to more complex, and perhaps a "signature move" that distinguishes it from other schools. If you think about it a bit, many of the old schools have a "brand" that helps bring in the new students.

How about those established Ryu, are they all legitimate? Do they all present themselves accurately if they survive for a couple of generations? Are the really old ones teaching what they taught 400 years ago?

ALL schools as far as I know have inaccuracies, mistakes and often lies in their history. Hell I've got to reconcile Muso Gunnosuke and Miyamoto Musashi and their duel(s) to my students. My solution is to tell one version of the story to one class and then tell the other version to the same students in the next class in the next hour. They get it, and all the implications thereof.

Now it's usually true that good information drives out bad, and perhaps this sometimes makes a difference to the long term existance of a school as its students find out who really did what and why, but most students can understand a public face and a private face. My facebook feed includes Stan Pranin's posts with snippets of his past writings and you can see his education about the history of Aikido unfold and the changes on his attitudes. His shock at uncovering the difference between the hagiography and the reality is quite apparent. There are hints of the annoyance of the seniors in the line as well, as he niggled away at the story, changing the message they wanted to present. All of which has done the school no harm at all, Aikido has a huge following. Now, that's information about a three-four generation line, think what you could uncover over 20 generations.

My own practice over the years includes schools with traditional stories, as in the contradiction between Jodo and Niten mentioned above. It also includes history from the recent generations that I don't try to hide from my students, but which I am not going broadcast to the world either. Despite the current "gotcha" mentality in the news business, there is something to the idea that dirty laundry really should not be aired in public. All people are people after all, and if your sensei picks his nose there's not much value in instagramming a photo of the act. It doesn't have much to do with his ability to teach you to swing a sword after all.

There are a lot of lessons contained here. Japanese fellows are capable of lying... oh my! Some schools have oral and traditional histories that don't really stand up to scrutiny... goodness! Shocking. Bah, stick around your school long enough and you'll hear the stories. If it's a good school, a "legitimate" school your teachers won't bother trying to fool you for long, they'll tell you where the gaps are in the official lineage, where the techniques changed and shifted sideways, where the students carried the soke for a few years. If the school is well made and the current teaching good, the past is just a story, good for getting in the new students perhaps but not worth risking the anger of those inside by insisting on the public face in private.

Can there be a new school?

What about the new schools? Some folks have made up martial arts schools that can appear sharp and test their student's awareness and alertness to the breaking point. The problem? Oh yeah right, liars are bad people... but often end up as leaders and when they're found out should be thrown out.

While some perfectly legitimate schools are practiced in a slovenly and totally useless way that benefits not one person in the lineage. Oops did I really say that?

Could it really come down not to some "expert's" definition of "legitimacy" but to the quality of the instructor, irrespective of culture or historical accuracy? Nah, it's all about who's got the longest proven unbroken set of densho. Them's the guys with the best ability to create a better human being.


Well someone who can't tell a fable from a fact might be suspect as a history teacher but hey, they just might be able to lead a class of "dance" that's dangerous enough to require your absolute attention for a couple of hours which would cause certain physiological changes in brain activity which would...

Oh never mind, now we're getting into the basic question of training and who wants to talk about that when we can talk about who's legitimate.

Bottom line, I'm as fussy about "legitimate" as the next guy, and I don't see myself creating or joining a new Ryu any time soon, but all these old established Ryu began somewhere and I wouldn't look too closely if the idea that my school was born in the heat of battle by divine inspiration was important to me.

Oct 12, 2013

No Seiza No Iai

If you don't do seiza you aren't doing iaido?

Ask yourself "What would Eishin do?". In 1600 at the time of the 7th headmaster of my Iai school, what would he think of not doing seiza when practicing iaido? Not much I suspect, since the practice of iaido from seiza didn't come into the lineage until the next headmaster or two. Iaido started being practiced from seiza when most folks started sitting in seiza, so I look forward to the time when we are doing iaido from chairs.

But never mind all that, it's just a fun observation, what would Eishin have done with a student who had caught an arrow through the leg or who just blew a knee and couldn't get into tate hiza? He'd have taught him standing techniques I suspect, after all at that time iaido was a practical art taught to warriors who were expected to be able to use their swords if called upon to use them. You don't throw away an employee because he can't stand at the work bench any more, you find him a chair. Eishin, I suspect, would have had no problem with not teaching a fellow who can't get down on his knees, techniques from his knees. If he's never going to be in that position, why worry if he can't fight from that position. If you are concerned today about knowing every aspect and nuance of the art you practice, maybe you will get upset that you can't practice from seiza any more, but that's a modern problem, not one from the origins of the art where it was taught as a practical skill.

I've seen the same concern in a fellow who is a pretty good sword polisher but at six foot four inches can't sit for hours any more with his left knee all folded up. Is his work of any less value if he does it standing at a bench instead?

Well, yes it is of less value if you figure sword polishing has to be done from the traditional squat. And no it isn't if you get the sword back in the mail and you are delighted (and never find out he polished it while standing up).

So what about getting down into seiza and being in so much pain you can't draw the sword and hit a target? Is this correct iai? It is not. If you can't draw and cut from a position you should never put yourself into that position. If the only place you ever even try to sit in seiza is in the iai dojo, the art isn't very realistic is it?

Again, I wait for the powers that be to create a set of iai from a chair.

Oct 9, 2013

Switching It Up

Are you mated for life when you enter a school or can you change from one to another? Can you listen to more than one instructor?

From a mechanical point of view, switching schools is usually not a big problem. Lots of people switch from one to the other with relatively little problem, and at the upper levels of the Kendo Federation (as folks get older and sensei pass away) there can even be Muso Jukiden Eishin Ryu instructors who are students of Muso Shinden Ryu sensei and vice versa.

Most of the difficulties in changing from dojo to dojo are to do with koryu and other small organizations based on similar principles of one on one teaching. It's a lot easier to change dojo or instructors, even arts, in a large organization than it is in many koryu. This is due to several factors, one may perhaps be a somewhat less "proprietary" viewpoint toward students. When there are several sensei who regularly interact with each other it's not hard to pass students along if they move or even if they just need a bit of attention from someone else. Another factor is the sheer number of sensei, when you have multiple dojo in the same region it's not too hard to have a student population that becomes somewhat transitory, practicing on Monday and Wednesday at one dojo, Tuesday and Thursday at another. Once established, this will create a situation where the sensei can't very well forbid students from looking at other sensei even if they decide they want to.

However, even in a classical Koryu situation it's sometimes necessary for students to take a good long look at their sensei, whether or not they are moving to a different place. A sensei may become unstable, egotistical or otherwise dangerous, he may decide to leave a wider organization, or he may simply become stale and uncaring about his instruction of the students.

On the other hand, a senior sensei may retire, die or leave the area, and the incumbent sensei may be junior to the remaining students, just not very skilled, or not capable of maintaining a group due to poor people skills.

And finally, a student may become "deaf", incapable of learning more from the sensei.

Ultimately it is the student's responsibility whether or not they stay or move. As far as I know there is no mechanism to "blackball" students beyond the usual gossip network of instructors that has always existed, so if you leave one, you can usually find another to take you in.

In an ideal world of course one would not ever need to change one's sensei but that sort of wishful thinking isn't very budo is it? We need to live in the real world of the simple complexities of dealing with other people.

Students must do what's best for them, for those who come after them (their own students), and for the art if they are inclined to care about that, all the while guarding against decisions that are derived from their own ego.

Oct 7, 2013

Entry Requirements

Best way to save time as a teacher is to sort the students out first rather than invest years only to have them leave later.

My particular requirement seems to work well for us, we require that students show up whenever they can/want. Seems to keep the numbers down quite nicely. We don't have any particular requirements beyond that, don't need them since we don't charge for the classes. Sometimes I put up posters and hand out flyers.

The beauty of the method is in it's simplicity. If someone can't be bothered to check out a free class that has no restrictions on joining, they certainly aren't going to stay.

The ease with which students can join the class keeps them away since the perceived value of something is directly related to its cost. If I were to charge big money or have elaborate entry requirements, or be difficult to find, I'd likely attract a lot more kids looking for Mr. Miyagi. The method screens out the guys who want the "secrets of the samurai". I can't be any good as an instructor if I don't have special restrictions that they must meet, and the class can't be very special if anyone can join, so we don't attract the ones who want to be part of an elite club. There are lots of clubs nearby who cater to all that secret society stuff so they get the romantics, all that's left for us is folks who have a genuine interest in the art itself.

It really does keep the wannabe's away, the guys who email more than once and ask anything other than "when's the class and how much" do not exhibit any further interest once they understand that it's easy to get accepted into class. It's not what they expect, it's not what they want, it puts all the decision making power on them. They can't say "oh I HAVE to go to class or I'll be booted out" which is a lot easier than "I have other things to do, and I don't really have to go to class so maybe I'll stay home". Even "I paid for the class so I'd better go" is a crutch we don't provide.

Honestly, the requirements are tough. Few come and most disappear. Only the self-starters show up and the students who stay are even more self-motivated these days since I've noticed I have started to be "the anti-sensei". If a new student seems super-serious and wants the military discipline thing I seem to get even more lax than usual just to see if they are paying attention to the instruction instead of the orders. I'm actually a bit concerned about this, after all, a little discipline is not a bad thing. But one of my students did point out that the stand at attention types tend to wander, the eyes glazing over as they wait for the next command while I'm trying to explain something a bit more complex than "this foot there".

In the end, it doesn't seem to matter that we have such strict standards since we have students who travel several hours to class, and a couple have been doing so for years. As to who stays, one thing I've noticed is that those who show up in class saying "I dunno, I'm in town and saw the sign so thought I'd come out and see what's happening" stay a lot longer than the ones who email me 15 times asking if there's any special requirements and whether or not I'm "legitimate".

So, why would any sensei want to keep students out of the dojo? Why not have lots of new folks coming through and trying out the art, wouldn't that be the best way to grow the art? Perhaps, but I would encourage you to think about class from sensei's point of view.

30 years of practice. Sensei shows up for each and every class. Students show up when it suits them for a couple of months then drift out again? As I said, we don't charge for classes, so there's no particular monetary incentive on my part to get the numbers up. If there are a lot of beginners we're spending most of the time looking at which foot goes where and the seniors don't get pushed on to the good stuff. How is that growing the art? Better to have few students who will stay with it for years, either with me or with another sensei in the art. (We're a University club so students move on).

Which brings up one more point, We don't make it easy to stay in the class, beginners join at any time and jump in wherever we are. We don't have beginner classes and I rarely take time out to show them the basics. They are warned that they're being "thrown into the deep end of the pool" and told to swim as best they can. This goes against all the rules of proper education but in the end it doesn't really matter, I've tried the beginner class thing and had no better retention rates so I just teach the seniors and they help the beginners with the basics when I'm not looking.

Cheeky beggers, they don't realize that all I ever teach are the basics.

Oct 6, 2013

Family vs Koryu

I suspect the vast majority of those who get involved in a koryu happened to stumble over it in their back yards. Long distance travel and moving to another country is a romantic idea and a focused way to practice, but probably best reserved for the young, enthusiastic and dedicated since it means not having much of a life otherwise. Unfortunately due to the realities of koryu, it's still one of the few ways you can do things if you insist on studying some specific arts.

For anybody "with a life" the best advice might be to look around your area and find the best teacher you can, then do that art no matter what it is. 60 hours a week supporting a family doesn't leave much time for practice so having something close-by is the practical solution until the kids are up and out of the house and the wife wants you to do the same.

Of course it's best to do the combative sports when you are young, that's a career arc that usually happens before the family. The weapons arts (barring competitive kendo of course) can wait until you're older, most of the koryu can actually wait until after the family, and one can even blend into the other. Start kendo when you're ten, work hard and build up the fitness and the reactions for fifteen years whle having fun on the tournament circuit. Have the kids and the work career while changing from competitor to sensei and start a new art like iaido or jodo. Then, after the family and after the coaching is done you can concentrate on the koryu for yourself.

In fact, the contacts you make through your kendo will allow you to find any koryu nearby, and if you still want to go to Japan for that specific koryu, you'll find someone.

At ten you want to jump around and smack each other. At 30 you want to sleep after a long day at the office, and at 50 you want to swing that sword without blowing that achilles tendon. We live a long time these days, you actually can have it all so have patience, it will all be there waiting.

Oct 3, 2013

Why Do You Want to Grade

There are some places where rank is useful. The most likely is when trying to start a dojo in a public gym where the idea of certification is well entrenched. To say you have a "black belt" is usually enough for institutions that are used to seeing and accepting 4 hour certifications in "Hip Hop Hot Yoga". The certificate is all that's required to satisfy the insurance policy I suppose. If you want to argue for more pay or displacing the instructor already in place, you will have a bit of a chore trying to educate the local administrators that your 5dan is more valuable than a 2dan. It's not the way the fitness industry works these days, who ever heard of a "senior aerobics instructor" with 20 years experience?

Rank is not useful if it's used to "pull rank" or to satisfy the ego. It may be of some value in marking off the training time, providing incentive to get to class, or to organize the life-long learning but I have serious doubts about any of those. If you aren't training because "it's what you do" after the first five years, you may want to reconsider your hobby time, there could be something better for you out there.

The best use of rank is within your own organization where it allows you to give others rank, to teach, to provide locally what you can't get otherwise. I suppose one way to look at this is that rank lets you get on with the day to day practice of your art without having to fly in some bigshot from far away. You get rank so that your students don't have to worry about where they'll get instruction. Most of the high ranked folks I know bothered to get their rank for this reason. Sure I know some ego-hogs who like "being on top" (notice I didn't say "being in charge" because these guys want the glory but not the work) but most folks just want to train.

Like starting a club to have a place to practice, getting enough rank that the powers that be leave you alone to train is not so much ego-driven as selfish. I freely admit that I'm selfish about this. I need to keep training and if I ever manage to build a dojo in my back yard I may just stop teaching and drop out of the grading system completely. For now, I teach at a University gym and so go through the hoops of getting enough students to keep things rolling alone. Students expect to grade, so I participate.

Many years ago I was more evangelical about this stuff, it helped me through my 20s, it will likely help others. I still believe that but there's lots of stuff that helps and lots of other helpers so I'm no longer as keen. Same with the ranks, there are others coming up behind me so if I never take another rank I'm good with that. In the past it made a difference, now, not so much. In the past I pushed my students to practice and take grades because we needed them coming up to replace us. Now, not so much, there's lots of rank out there and some of the folks coming up are dead keen to get to the top.

So, to my current students, by all means, go for that next grade but if you don't, that's fine too. There are others who want to be in charge, they have ideas and they'll practice hard to get what rank we need around the place.

You guys just concentrate on learning as much as you can before I build that dojo in the back yard.

Or not...

Sept 30, 2013

Informal Rank Structures

Rank is too ingrained in the budo to claim that it doesnt exist. Even when there are no tests and formal rank certificates of any description given out, there is rank.

We recognize those who know more than us, those who are older, those who have been around longer. This is all taken into account in the concept of sempai and kohei, senior and junior. Sometimes it's called the "Japanese apprentice" system and one of my favourite stories is about a fisherman who, for 15 years, hoped and prayed that one of the other guys would fall overboard or quit. That way a new guy would be hired and it would be his job to clean the toilets.

In the west we usually assume sempai is anyone who joined the dojo ahead of us, or anyone who got the rank first. Now right there you can get a contradiction since a senior in time served might just slip behind a newer guy in rank. Then what do you do? Depends on the dojo of course but as that higher ranked junior-time guy I'd sit exactly where I always sat, downwind of the other guy, until invited or told to move.

What happens when someone joins before you but is absent for huge chunks of time or moves and comes back? First in is first in. If they ever sat higher than you, it's good for you to consider that they always sit higher than you. I'm now older than my father and my grandfather ever were, they're still my ancestors even if I became more ancient than they.

Chronological age can make a difference to who's sempai, if you come into the dojo at roughly the same time, or even further apart than that, an older man would likely be sitting upwind of a younger by virtue of the respect due to age and life experience. In other words if you would offer a seat on the bus you should likely offer the higher seat in the dojo. It would be only the most strict of dojo that would not tend to push a major businessman or politician up the seating ladder, and it would be up to them to resist that push. The higher your status outside the dojo, the more careful of dojo heirarchy you should be inside. The president of the company might sit pretty low down in the company dojo (but that might not mean his employees beat the tar out of him on days other than his birthday).

Sempai can be a rather formal position in many western dojo, with students taught to call the highest student(s) by that title, and that's fine, but as a general rule, if they got there first, outrank you, are older than you, or are someone you'd call "sensei" on the street (doctors, lawyers, professors and such) you should consider them your sempai.

Take into account other ranks as well, in the CKF we have 7 and 8dan kendo sensei who have started iaido and are grading at very junior dan ranks. I strongly suspect most of our higher ranked iaido folks call them "sensei" no matter where they choose to sit during class. I certainly do. Same with some very highly ranked folks from outside the organization. If I'm teaching they sit below me on the mat of course, but they certainly are not addressed as "dave" or "fred". Although I was technically the second 7dan in the country, I consider myself the fourth ranked. The two I consider ahead of me are an 8dan kendo sensei and a direct iaido teacher of mine, both of them with many more years practice in than me. When you are given a rank has nothing to do with seniority in cases like that.

Actually, unless there is a formal "rank" of sempai, you would address people above you either formally or as sensei, and those below you politely or as sensei. Sensei? Yes, if someone below you in the dojo or elsewhere is a teacher, they get to be called teacher. Hey, I sometimes get addressed as Taylor Teacher by the visiting Japanese sensei so consider that when next you are wondering what to call someone. I figure "Taylor Teacher" is a bit more respectful even than "Taylor Sensei" because they've taken the bother to translate it.

I'm sitting here trying to think of other informal rank structures but I think sempai - kohei is pretty much it. It's a sorting out of seating arrangement (or not, in my dojo I prefer seniors to mix between the juniors for instructional reasons) that goes on without much prompting from sensei.

Now, that doesn't mean there are not other ways of ranking, a name board in the dojo for instance will tend to formalize the informal, as will a list of names on the organization website or a demonstration programme. Of course you have to know how to read those, the website will likely be read top down and a demonstration tends to close with the most senior person, the juniors all demonstrating first in sometimes esoteric ranking calculations.

Sensei may designate specific teaching assistants based on skill rather than on time in or rank if such exists. If the assistant comes from the class and is junior to many of the other students, he would be well advised to sit where he usually sits rather than moving himself upwind. If sensei wants him recognized a bit more formally than just appearing up front to help in a kata, he may actually pull the assistant over to the teaching side of the dojo rather than putting him up the student ladder. Yes it can be that complicated, watch the natural sorting out of position that goes on up front at a big seminar. Glances up and down the line, palms offering a place up and heads shaking off the offer all over the place. Notice especially how comfortable and polite the arranging is. If there are resentful looks at being bumped down the line you may want to pay attention to what's happening in your organization, there could be trouble. My advice, take a modest place and resist only mildly if told to move up. It is as tacky to insist on the lower position as it is to insist on a higher.

All this sorting is a measure of mutual respect, not a contest and certainly not a prize to be sought. Pride or prideful-humility has no place in matters of respect in the dojo.

Sept 26, 2013

You Got Another License for That?

What gives me the authority to teach the stuff I teach? Part II

The Koryu Case

So let's go on to a discussion of teaching authority using my koryu experience. I should mention that I have been talking about the authority that a teacher feels within himself, rather than what others feel about him. Formal certification by an external source is considered in this respect for how it affects the teacher's self-image. I must say that I have never been much concerned with what the man on the street thinks about my qualifications to teach because I don't consider teaching to be anything special. I do understand that some folks put a lot of their self-image into being a sensei, and some students desire this a lot, but in my case it's just been a necessity of life. I taught because that was how I got space to practice. Now I teach because, in large part, that's how I keep practicing. As I've become older and more injured, being in charge of my pace of practice lets me extend my career.

On to the koryu arts where I have no paper to hang on my walls. None of my old school training has included any sort of formal testing or certification and the one time I was offered an administrative rank (representative of the school for North America) I turned it down with the explanation that I was that person already, and didn't need a piece of paper to prove it to anyone. If you're the guy who has the contact with the teacher, you're that guy.

So there's my main koryu authority, the authority of being taught. I am borrowing the authority of my teacher, he taught me and has perhaps given me permission to teach what I know. However, in a very real way that authority is self-assumed, I have as much authority to teach the art as I invest in my sensei to teach it. Like I said, no paper trail of certification, I just assume he has the right and ability to teach me, and I assume I have the ability to learn and pass it on.

The authority of being taught. It's the flip side of the authority of having students and one doesn't work without the other. To teach you need some sort of knowledge to pass on and you need students to pass it to. It's the lineage of teacher to student that, in a very real sense, is the authority. No amount of paper certification can save a school if there are no teachers and students. Witness the number of old certificates that can apparently be bought in used book shops in Japan. By owning a certification in a school you do not acquire any knowledge of the school itself, even if the certificate contains the names of the kata and maybe a verse about training. It's a statement of achievement, not an instructional aide like a book. Witness the old Western sword schools that have been revived by study of manuals. You might argue that they are not legitimate because they are not an unbroken chain of instruction, but there is no doubt that they have revived something of the old arts. What they do is dangerous and effective, if not exactly as the author taught it.

Back to borrowing your teacher's authority. You give yourself as much teaching authority as you give your teacher, but is paper certification any more certain than this? Does a piece of paper from your teacher saying you've got permission to teach any more valuable than verbal or implied permission? You must accept that your teacher's paper has authority. In fact you must accept the whole chain of paper from founder down to you is legitimate and at no point was there a purchase of a grade or sloppiness in testing a student. You must assume no lazy transmission at all. Paper or no paper, this direct transmission of teacher to student will always depend on a solid chain of instruction and the end student, the fellow now teaching, must accept that the chain is solid. This is the koryu way, there are no overseeing institutions to check on my teacher and his certification as he hands that certification over to me, and no books or video to check claims against (beyond a generation or three back) so the authority is ultimately self-given as it is accepted. It is only to others that koryu paper means anything, not to the student or to the teacher, and given that some students are told they should put their paper away in a drawer rather than wave it around the dojo, it is doubtful it was ever meant as anything but reassurance.

Why should a lack of paper certification bother anyone in the koryu? Self doubt, feelings of fraud are common in anyone who has studied the budo. A nagging feeling of not knowing it all, of missing some obscure principle. Having a piece of paper is something solid to hang on to. The paper is an external validation of permission to teach should the student forget tha the teacher told him it was fine. Something to look at and hold like an old blanket. Is there a need to show that paper to others who may doubt? Perhaps, if that doubt is bothersome. Is there a need to show some paper to new students? Again, perhaps but in my opinion, my opinion of your teaching ability isn't going to change no matter what paper you hang in your dojo.

My 7dan certificate in iaido reassures me that I have permission to teach, but it doesn't mean I "can" teach. The problem is that this reassurance is just the same as having no permission at all. To be reassured by the paper means I have self-doubt about my authority to teach which means I doubt my ability, and therefore I doubt the paper.

There's a nasty pair of truths here. If you have no self-doubt of your authority to teach, you are full of ego or braggadoccio. If you have self-doubt you are casting stones at the glass house of your art.

You know, that very contradiction is what drives any art forward, and why the koryu have changed and adapted and survived to this day. Teachers driven by doubt and ego simultaneously, to improve the art. You need both the doubt that there's something more and the ego that tells you that you can find it.

Sept 26, 2013

You Got a License for That?

What gives me the authority to teach the stuff I teach?

For a lot of the time that I've been teaching I have relied on a mixture of humility and external validation to teach such things as iaido, jodo, aikido, niten ichiryu, women's self defence and a bunch of other bits and bobs of the martial arts stuff. By what authority does one teach? In my case I figure I've pretty much covered the field so let's check out my situation as an example.

Zen Ken Ren Iai: According to the current International Kendo Federation rules and regulations, at 7dan I hold the highest rank necessary to grant the entire range of rank in my country. By this I mean a 7dan can sit on a panel to create another 7dan and any rank below that. Those in the know will be saying "8dan" in their heads now, but an 8dan, like all other rank, is created by the local country, not through the FIK who only supply recommendations on minimum standards. Their guidelines only state that an 8dan should show some skills as part of the examination, which I take to mean they should still be practicing the art. Beyond that, 8dan is entirely up to the country, as are the shogo ranks of renshi kyoshi and hanshi, which the FIK has stated they will not attempt to standardize.

Since I qualify to sit on the highest panel we can convene in the CKF, I automatically have the authority to teach the techniques that are covered by that grading panel. That is, the techniques of the "seitei gata iai", the kendo federation iaido. If I pass judgement on who demonstrates them correctly, it's a given that I can tell people what those correct ways of performance are.

Thats a simple one, but I'm not the "big word". I'm "a" voice but not "the" voice. There are three or four people who "outrank" me in the CKF. First are the two regional examiners, one east and one west, who are the folks in charge of the local gradings and who sits on the grading panels under their control (5dan and below). Then there is the chief examiner for Canada, who is the head of the iaido section, and the fellow who decides on all technical matters pertaining to training and grading in Canada. Finally, there is the president of the federation who is the fellow taking the names from the chief examiner and signing the certificates. The president is under the board of directors, but it is his name on the certificate and he is the interesection of the administrative and instructional arms so can be seen as the top of the pyramid.

For CKF jodo I hold a 5dan grade. That means, under our system, that I am qualified to put students forth for examination which is pretty much the strict definition of a teacher. I can, according to the FIK guidelines, sit on a panel that will grade up to 3dan. So I suppose that implies I have the authority to teach jodo up to that level at least. Can I teach up to 5dan? More? Of course any teacher can teach to any level at all, but that brings up an interesting point. What if one of my students grades to a higher level than me? That's actually happened in my career, at one point I had several students who held a higher grade than me and what happened is that they all made me carry their bags. Seriously, that started my career as a packhorse for my classes, and you will still see me schlepping bundles and boxes around seminars.

What having a higher ranked student also gives you is a great deal of pride and some bragging rights. In the budo world, to teach well is a goal greatly desired. You are a tournament champ or "the best" for only a short time, but you can teach your whole life, so it is better to be good at that. Some people think that they have to move up the ladder in order that their students are allowed to move up too, but that's only the usual way of doing things, rank is not really technical or teaching ability, it's just rank and people stop grading for all sorts of reasons. That doesn't mean they can't teach to a high level.

So I'm a 5dan in the CKF, and as it happens, that's the highest rank we have in the country for jodo. I got there first and am actually eligible to challenge 6 but I have not done that. The other hat I wear is chief examiner for jodo and it is my job to figure out how to convene panels that can get our students graded beyond 3dan. (If anyone has any interesting new ideas how we could do that, please let me know.)

As chief examiner, it's my job to set the standards for teaching and grading, so again, the implication is that I have the authority to teach "seitei jo" up to the highest levels. Chief Examiner is the equivalent of Chair of the section or the head honcho so of course I can teach what I have authority over. You might actually say that I have more teaching authority in jodo than I do in iaido because as the head of section I'm in charge of defining and implementing the curriculum. In iai, my job is to teach the curriculum as it is defined by the iaido chief examiner.

Again, pretty clear on the teaching front, just a bit of a hitch on the administrative/instructional front. As head of section I have authority to set up grading panels, it's just that we don't have the rank to do it.

Moving on to Aikido, I have a very old teaching rank of shodan from around 20 years ago. Having been away from the art for quite a long time I have returned to help with some beginner classes at the University. In the meantime I suspect my shodan has lost some "purchasing power" with many higher dan ranks and, apparently, a system of fukushidoin and shidoin (teaching certifications) having appeared. I don't, as a result, have a clue whether or not I have any authority to teach within the organization. I take refuge in the idea that the club is my "home dojo" and I hide behind the hakama of the head teacher who will correct any strange technique I teach and sign any grading applications for the students. In other words, I teach here because I once had (and maybe still have) a teaching rank but more importantly, I have a chief to teach under. This is an "assistant teacher" situation which frees me from the worry of getting re-trained in current technical practice. I stick with fundamentals and let my supervisor teach the standard techniques as required today.

Self Defence: The next level of teaching authority to discuss is my women's self defence class where I am the "founder" of an art. Yeah I know, but bear with me. In 1987 the University had no self defence class so a couple of us youngsters volunteered to do it. We started from a review of the academic literature on assault and resistance, took about 30 years cumulative experience in several martial arts and threw it all out the window. We came up with a system of escape and running away screaming like a banshee that was based on "what worked" and started teaching it. I still teach it to this day, but classes have been cut down over the years as students of the arts have dropped generally and this year it's down to a one day class from the original 20 sessions. I'm not too worried about it, our system is good and has proved it's worth over the years for many people but it's not anything that can't be worked up by others if necessary. My point here is that I teach it because I created it, that's the authority under which I operate in this instance. I was in on the discussions of principle, I read the background research and I use what teaching tricks have been shown to work over the years I've done the course. The jokes are a bit stale but they still get a laugh once in a while.

So, for iaido and jodo you might say that being a member of the panel makes me an arbiter of style, my authority comes partly from my ability to say "do it my way or you don't pass". Of course that's not the reality and there is an organization full of teachers that prevents too much of that sort of thinking, but for the teacher that sort of understanding can provide an internal authority that allows us to say "do it this way" instead of "well I think it may be like this".

For Aikido I'm just a minor cog on the wheel, no pretense of being an influence so I my "inner authority" comes from being able to say "I've done this and you haven't, try it this way and see if it works for you". No question of my way or the highway but certainly I can say which way to (from?) that same highway.

Ultimate authority on the self defence, as far as I know I'm the only one still teaching it and I was one of the founders so of course I get to say what's what. Internal authority galore, externally what? I suppose the ultimate external authority to teach anything is the presence of students in the class. No students, no teacher. It doesn't matter how big the paper on the wall, how many stamps and gold seals, if there are no students there is no teacher. On the other hand, if someone says "I want to learn what you know" you're a teacher. After all sensei means "gone before" right? Someone will doubtless tell me I've got that wrong, and frankly, "gone before" smells a bit fishy (or otherwise) but there you go. (See, stale jokes).

Authority felt within the teacher allows them to teach in a definite and positive manner, which gives the student confidence and allows them to learn with confidence. Often this authority in the teacher comes from the external validation of rank, position in the organization or, as in the case of the self defence course, creation of the material being taught.

I'll leave a discussion of my koryu teaching for later.

Sept 25, 2013

It's Rank

What's rank? Just what is it to say "I'm an X-dan", what's it mean to you and to other people? Of what use is it?

Well to students, rank is a way of ticking off the progress milestones, a rank represents a minimum set of skills mastered, or a miniimum level of competence. As such, it provides a way to keep up the interest, who doesn't want to collect merit badges, and it becomes a way to organize your education. The various dan levels provide a progression of learning and by studying to the next exam you are carrying on in a logical way to further your knowledge.

For the seniors, it's a way to sort out the instructional ranks, who teaches who, who gets to define the curriculum and who sits in judgement of those below.

It doesn't have to get any more complicated than that, we don't have to bring in ego, power-seeking behaviour or other such misunderstandings. That formal rank is useful is amply demonstrated by its existance in just about every budo organization of any size out there. For smaller groups, rank may be informal, but it still exists. In a single dojo the members will sort themselves into sensei, seniors and juniors on an ad hoc basis, or perhaps even on a name board hung in the dojo.

Grades are organization derived, and recognized. If there are multiple similar organizations, as in a worldwide federation of national groups, the world body usually facilitates cross-border recognition of grades within the organizations under its umbrella. A highly structured example of this is seen in the International Kendo Federation, where a set of minimum recommended guidelines on grading is provided to the national body which is the degree granting unit. In other words, your rank comes from your country, but the guidelines provide a way to ensure that a 5dan in France is the same as a 5dan in Columbia.

Grades can also move between informally related organizations by tradition or semi-formal agreement, as perhaps between different Aikido groups in the same general lineage who will usually recognize a grade without requiring a re-test. There can even be transfer by unilateral granting of credit for rank earned elsewhere. This sort of thing often happens when, say, a karate teacher switches from one group to another and is granted his same or a higher (or lower) rank.

The ranking system is only meaningful within the granting organization itself, and is often opaque to the students... "what do I need to do to get the next grade"? This opacity is often useful to prevent students from getting too focused on the grading itself and forgetting the underlying purpose (to improve in the art rather than to gain the grade). On the other hand, a rank might be very specific indeed, "master this set of techniques and you will receive this certification that you have done so".

Unhelpful Rank Manipulations

So why the noodling? I have been thinking recently about the various ways that rank can become un-useful, or perhaps I should say, the ways that it's usefulness can be subverted, sometimes by good intent, into something that is actually damaging to the organization.

Money: Consider that most grades cost something. When the fee covers the cost of organizing the grading itself, there is never a problem. When it covers the grading costs and provides a reasonable level of extra income to the organization for it's day to day expenses, that's also not a problem. If the fees start to become high, and the students paying those fees can't see any return, or worse, can see those fees heading to some other purpose than back to the students paying them, there's discontent. The use of organization fees for the top guy to fly around the country visiting dojo (not teaching, just schmoozing around) might be considered borderline but imagine organization fees going to pay for the top guy's new house (instead of to a salary which is then applied to the new house).

Fees that are "traditional" can crop up around gradings, these are things like "thank you gifts" to senior sensei which are "expected", and can be confused with bribes, especially when given before the grading. Of course, then you have the straight out bribes but we hardly need to speak of how those will damage any organization and completely undermine all legitimacy in the grading system.

Bias: Similar in effect to bribes, the appearance (or reality) of granting rank due to association (to a teacher, or through family relationship) will undermine the system. If a grading system moves away from it's stated outlines it will be seen as unfair, even if the rank is given for merit. If your rank system is based on ability, giving rank for being the son of the soke creates resentment. If the rank is based on family connection, giving rank to some outsider who is skilled will create a similar resentment. In other words, be honest about how rank is granted and don't change the rules without consultation and announcement. Most organizations have a few ranks that were given as thanks to outside benefactors, or for work done by members that is of great benefit to the group, but isn't given for technical skill. These are not uncommon or undeserved, but lower ranked students need them explained before they think bias.

Rank-inflation: What happens when a group starts handing out "easy" rank in order to build membership? "We will give you an extra dan rank if you bring your students in" or "you will get a black belt in two years if you sign this contract". The result is that the worth of each rank becomes less, like money in a period of inflation, it takes more and more rank to represent the same level of skill. This way leads to the 15th-dan, or even to "currency-replacement" with additional rank systems being grafted on (you can be a 6dan but you also now have to be a shihan in order to sit on a grading panel).

Rank-deflation: What happens when the group at the top decides that they don't really deserve their grade and they start requiring more and more from their students at each grading? You get deflation, as when a shortage of money in circulation causes price drops in goods (the value of the money in circulation starts to increase in value). Why is that not a good thing? Who doesn't want to buy more for less? Less money means a stagnant economy, shopkeepers don't get paid as much for their stuff and workers don't make as much money, nobody buys stuff and people start to lose jobs. What happens in budo? Students start to quit grading or go to some other organization, either way, your next generation of teachers is gone.

Rank-degradation: This is rather similar to deflation, and can sometimes be the cause of that same deflation. Anyone in an international organization has seen or even participated in this one, in it's mild form. "A Japanese 5dan is, of course, more skilled than a non-Japanese 5dan". In it's nastier form the folks from the home country will state flat-out that "overseas ranks are too high", that those grades given in a foreign country are given too easily. When this happens the grading system in the foreign country will become tougher, either by the locals trying to improve, or by dropped-in examiners with an agenda to improve the locals. Either way it will lead to fewer students bothering to grade and eventually to the loss of membership.

Rank-collapse: If there are no students rising to the top of the organization due to any of the reasons given above, the system can collapse. Those who die or retire are the highest ranks, if they haven't replaced themselves somehow, the degree-granting system ratchets down to the next allowed rank. If you have to be two grades ahead to sit on a panel, 6dans can create 4dans, when you run out of 6dans you can only create 3dans with your 5dans. Sooner or later the membership collapses as students realize there's no way to get to the top any more.

A Theoretical Example: What can happen with the best of intentions?

Let's suppose a world budo federation with a bunch of national organizations under it. The national organizations probably start with a club or two out in the wilderness, students who have moved abroad perhaps, being supported as best as they can by sensei back in the home country, or in some other country. With enough growth the dojos form a national organization and then join the international group. The grading system may not start for several years after this, but eventually some ranking gets done with some of the more wealthy students going to other countries. This situation lasts only as long as it has to, because you can't grow like that. The talent levels become wildly out of kilter with the rank so it is decided that the country has to start doing their own gradings. This is hard, but with enough time, effort and money collected from the students a panel is assembled and some gradings are done. Now the growth can happen, and it does with the upper ranks trying hard to stay ahead of their students coming up behind them. Several years go by and now the oldsters who started the organization have managed to accumulate enough higher rank to think about not having to bring in judges from other countries. A proud day indeed. The upper ranks are proud of their students who worked hard, built dojo, struggled and sweated to gain their own students and become worthy of their rank. The students are proud of their sensei who have pulled them up the mountain while not having any regular teachers of their own. No easy walk up following their teacher for those guys, they had to cut the forest and build the bridges as they fought their way slowly higher, always looking both forward and back to make sure their students were on better footing than they ever had.

A nice story, and a nice result. But... money.

The budo has a competitive aspect which is a big reason the first group started practicing in the first place. Now they have a national team to compete in the world championships against the old country. A national team is expensive and a lot of money is now heading toward their training and travel. So much in fact, that not a lot is left over for promoting or instructing the grass roots clubs and those clubs are starting to wonder what their grading fees and membership dues are being used for... beside the elite few on the national team. Not only that, but all the tournaments are now seeded and the recreational types are starting to wonder why they spend money to travel to and enter a tournament where they get knocked out in the first round by one of the national team members. It's hardly worth the effort and they only attend out of loyalty to the organization. Still, it would be easier and cheaper to just mail the equivalent of the entry fee to the organization. They might even do that, and the tournaments start getting smaller and the better competitors start to get fewer matches before meeting each other in the quarter finals. So far so good, no less money and less wasted time before the elite fight each other.

Good intentions but the result? With no grassroots efforts and no tournament experience for the juniors, the national team starts to get a bit long in the tooth. It's the same guys for year after year and their results are going down. The limited funds available in the organization went to pride before growth and now they are paying the price without having reaped any benefit. Their numbers were too small, their base too limited to take a run at the larger countries so soon. Now they are back at the beginning, building from the ground up but with a set of middle level ranks who are not as keen as they were, they just want to practice the art and are reluctant to work for a competitive side they can no longer enjoy. This is an age old problem for any sports organization, how much do we spend on the elite and how much on the grass roots. Concentrate everything on either one and you have a problem. The usual advice is to make sure that most of the money goes toward instruction, a big base gives you money and prospects to push on to the elite levels. Concentrate on the elite and it's a very short-term effort before that elite gets old and there is nobody to replace them.

Well, the organization can survive, they will just concentrate on growth for a while, and they call for that from the dojo and sensei. They don't have any particular suggestions, but they call for it nonetheless. More cynicism from the membership, they've been fighting for years to increase their membership and have tried everything they can. Unless there are plans coming, there will be a negative result from calls for growth. You don't ask for more work without putting it in yourself do you?

Well perhaps it will work out for our group but..... more rank troubles.

Unfortunately, someone back in the home country has become nervous about the upper ranks of some of the other countries, they have heard that the top fellows aren't the strongest technicians, that they aren't up with the latest developments in the art. Never mind that there are lots of teachers of the same rank in the home country that are just as bad, just as behind the times, those guys aren't in charge of whole countries! So the word goes out in a very polite way, "you guys are too easy on the grading". The implication of course is that there has been bias in the judging! You fellows have been promoted because you're the ones who have been putting your efforts and money into growing the organization and so you have been awarded your grades for this instead of for technical skills.... (wait, that doesn't sound so dire does it? Well yes it does, if you can't do it you can't understand it right? We'll talk about swim coaches who can't swim some other day shall we.)

The top guys aren't the best technically? Hey, the guys at the top already know this, they've spent most of their time teaching and too little practicing in front of a teacher, you don't have to remind them of that, they worry about it every day. They worry about it so much that they spend all their time coaching their juniors to make sure they don't have the same disadvantage, they teach as hard as they can, not out of ego but out of concern. Yet the implication is that if the guys at the top aren't up to snuff, neither are their juniors. So fine, we'll crank up the requirements to make sure our students are at least half a rank above the ranks elsewhere. We'll put in lots of kyu grades before they even get into the dan ranks, we'll put extra years between ranks, and we'll require more at each rank. That way they will be better than their grade wherever they go.

Good intentions but students aren't blind, they notice the requirements creeping up, they start to wonder why the guys ahead of them didn't have to do so much for their rank. Never mind that the first guys worked their asses off building the system the students are grading in now, they are changing it after they've gone through, they are... well they are making it easier for the students to decide that it isn't worth all the trouble to grade. If you have to turn in a PhD thesis to get a BSc degree, why not go to community college and study graphic design instead. Just do what you want to do, just practice and to hell with the grading. But that means the upper ranks are shrinking and not growing.

And the older ranks are still there, they have made it harder to get to their level, but they haven't demoted themselves so the concerned folk back in the home country decide it's time to be more direct, they will take over the grading of the top ranks themselves. Again, the implication, and maybe even the quietly polite statement that the top ranks are undeserving (they'd be the first to agree of course), and all done with the best of intentions. The direct students of the top guys are not happy of course, their teachers worked hard to create the organization and here comes a group from overseas to tell them they don't deserve their rank, effectively demoting them by taking over their jobs, but the top guys are keen to finally get some instruction from their own seniors after years of scarcity.

If the home country sends the judges and pays their expenses, it's a glorious thing. But of course that isn't going to happen, if there was that sort of money available they would have been visiting all along. No, the local country will have to pay to bring in the judges, and will have to accept the new judgement regime that combines with the new, more strict rules to make sure that only the very best get to advance to the next rank. A worthy goal indeed.

Expensive? You bet. Examinations might only happen once every two or three years now, and students who were wondering where their dues went in past years now know exactly where their increased grading fees are going. They are going to bring in judges from somewhere else, judges who don't have a clue who the students are, judges who may change every grading to make sure they don't get any bias by knowing the students. Remember that bias that created the unoworthy upper ranks in the first place? It can happen back home too, so change the judges who are getting too cozy with the foreigners, make it an objective assessment. Good intentions.

The outside judges may have their own concerns back home with their own higher-ups. If they were told to "crack down" on these foreign ranks you can be assured they will. Otherwise, why were they sent? The local judges will follow suit, and crack down alongside, or they will catch what-for. And the students find themselves waiting for the next grading as nobody passes.

Does all this sound alarming, is it really a danger to the organization if we crack down on the upper ranks in our national organization, make the ranks really valuable? No of course not. It's a good thing and let's remember that the rank isn't the important part of the process, its the time spent on the dojo floor practicing with your sensei. All the rank stuff is just politics after all, just sorting folk out on the heirarchy which is just ego stuff. The national organization begins to feel a drop in revenue as grading fees are not coming in, so all the other fees get increased to make up for it.

Remember way up top there when we talked about the worth of rank? Most students don't like testing, most don't like the stress and don't like paying for it and now our organization has pushed back at them just enough that they remember they don't need rank to practice. Their sensei, the guys in the middle who have been disillusioned by their own top guys and by the home country are also disinclined to pressure their students to grade. After all even if you have the good of the organization in mind, it's not a good idea to push a lot of the membership up to middle rank only to have them pile up because they can't move on to the top ranks. That creates a bunch of instructor-level people who might just decide to leave the original organization and start their own group with their own grading system. If they aren't in the sport stream and don't need to be members of the organization to compete, there's no real incentive to stick around, and even if they are competing, they can simply join as individuals while teaching their own students elsewhere.

International recognition of your rank? Why? You have been told your top levels are sub-par which actually means that ranks are NOT equal and are NOT recognized. You certainly don't have any real need for an international rank if you aren't planning to move, so what's the use? Other countries are going to bring in the "real" ranks from the home country from now on so the recognition ceases to be of interest to anyone but the national team.

The organization is now in a downward spiral. The old guys retire out of age or frustration and the ranks collapse far enough that the home country doesn't send judges any more. Our national group can only rank up to a low level and unless there are keeners who are willing to travel to the home country and grade, its all back to the beginning.

Best intentions can bring worst results.

As I say, I've written this because I've seen organizations grow and then die back over the mis-understanding of both money and rank. The example above is a combination of the worst results I've seen from the best intentions in several organizations. I know there are some groups out there on the cusp of either moving forward or heading over that tipping point to decline. Nobody is the bad guy in these situations, everyone has the best of intentions, but actions always bring unexpected results if they aren't fully thought out. Don't make changes without considering the results several years down the road.

Sept 20, 2013

Knowledge as Currency

Visiting one of the old forums I notice that folks are hunting down the fakes as enthusiastically as ever. One of the statements was a very definite "there is no way that what they are doing is X-ryu". The assuredness was quite breathtaking. I'm not as sure that pedestrians are clear of the intersection these days as this guy was sure he knew every nuance of every line in his koryu. Once upon a time I knew that much about the world, but no more I'm afraid, damned near whacked a fellow stepping into the intersection whle I was turning right three days ago. I swear he wasn't there when I started turning but he was behind the girl on the bike and the post of my van.

Information, it's a strange commodity these days. It has always had value mostly because it's scarce, after all something that everyone knows isn't worth much is it? Teachers deal in selling infromation in return for money or respect or some other payment. Customers/students will only pay for what they don't have. In the days pre-internet that scarce information also had a rather limited market. Guys who knew the inner secrets of the Japanese budo could use it to impress.. er gain respect from their students and a smallish local group who might come to demonstrations.

With the net the market expanded dramatically, and there was a world-wide audience for specialized information. Those who knew could impress... er educate many more people than ever before. Then the "kids" started doing it, they began to repeat this scarce information (often without any context, often verbatim) before us old guys could get to it, and thus spawned a sort of resentment that the kids got the information for free and were diluting the market with it. Then the forums split into more and more esoteric interest groups, so new markets opened up for the many new information providers who could all trade information for respect. Now these hundreds of little neighbourhood information markets are being driven out of business by the walgets of the net, by facespace and other companies who have found a way to make real money off of the old and new experts who are still giving their information away. We write, people read and the commercial net makes money off of all of us by serving advertisments. Our knowledge is their currency now.

Why do we not boycott the commercial web and do things the old, money-free way? Because the customers are in the store, and teachers gotta teach. We still get our satisfaction, our respect from the kids, regardless where we spend it. Information is our currency to purchase respect for our knowledge. On the commercial web, on the other hand, our information is their raw material, the stuff out of which they produce eyeballs which is what they sell to advertisers.

Ah the consumer society, where we can turn something as moneyless as sharing information into cash in a few people's pockets. It's even getting hard to earn cash as a local teacher, after all why pay for the cow of instruction when you can get the milk of information "for free" on the net?

Oh, my attempt to deal with the situation? You see that link below my signature? That's the ad your eyeballs are seeing in payment for my giving you this information. Fair Dinkum?

Sept 16, 2013

What is Added to Budo?

The question has been "how much Japanese can we take away" from budo before it isn't budo any more. What I'd like to know is how much is added when budo moves to the west.

Here's a little story to start us thinking.

Consider the iaido kata Mae/Shohatto. It is the fundamental kata of the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu lineage, and of both ZenKenRen iai and ZenIRen iai. A pretty important kata.

Consider that the very first stroke with the sword from the scabbard is ichi, the number one. The very next stroke is one, the western writing of ichi.

Combine these two strokes and you have ju, ten (+). That's ten times the value of ichi or one. That's an infinity of things arising from one thing, or from two things if you wish.

And, lest you think that ju is still Japanese, add the vertical stroke to the circular chiburi and you have the Western ten (10). You need that vertical stroke to make either ju or ten, so you can't separate one from the other.

Iai is "meeting" and in the very first kata you have a meeting that takes one and makes ten, makes ten two ways and ten times ten is a hundred.

Woo-woo enough for you?

Sept 16, 2013

Finally, Koryu

This evening I'm going to leave the Seitei Iai behind for as long as I can, and go back to the Koryu. While I don't mind Seitei, it's been a long run since spring when we had the seminar and grading, and then a tournament and another grading at the beginning of this month. I know I should be a mean fellow and let the students do their own preparation, but I just feel like I have to help.

Well I'm ignoring the December gradings, fair warning to anyone who wants to grade. I'm tired of repeating what's in the book, read it yourselves. My problem is that I have to keep pulling myself back when I teach seitei, I can't get too woo-woo on the students and go off down the rabbit hole into variations and flavours.

It's not that the students wouldn't benefit on a few seitei riffs, it's just that seitei isn't meant to be riffed on. It's seitei, it's a standardized way to do a kata so if I show them a modification I'm going to do them more harm than good. Assuming of course that failing a grading is harmful to anything except the CKF bank account.

No, about the most I can push it using seitei would be to suggest some riai to my seniors, something along the lines of grabbing a couple of bokuto and telling a pair to go do So Giri as if it's Kiri Kaeshi. Now the official word is that So Giri should be done as you would do Kiri Kaeshi, same footwork, same timing and so on. So try it, you do So Giri and your opponent is Motodachi, the fellow who receives like one would do in Kendo. Just go try it and you'll see an interesting bit of interpretation pop into being.

That I can do without changing the kata enough that a student would fail, but I have to be careful. Not so in the Koryu, there I get to play, I get to take what I've been taught and stretch it to fit all my students, I get to adapt it to their limits, I get to use it to stretch their abilities, I get to move deeper and deeper into the core of each kata so that I find fresh veins of gold. I am so looking forward to this evening when I can finally start putting the research I've been doing all summer into practice.

The students are going to hate it.

Ten years ago I was at the point where one of my senior students told me to "just tell us which variation you want us to do"! This month we are going so far into the woods that they're not going to know there's a kata in there at all.

We're going to see so many trees the idea of a forest won't even occur. Bwahahahaha.

Sept 13, 2013

Realistic Swordwork

If one wants a "realistic" sword style one can't avoid asking "realistic for what?". Dueling?... Death or pinks? Sport?... Which rules? War?... line up, form shield wall, push, stab, push, stab. Oh you mean broken field confusion? OK go stab guys in the back who are already engaged. Watch your own back, wait for the heavy horse to come and sweep everyone aside. Now line up again and form that shield wall to get some real work done.

If you want real, first figure out what you mean by that, then decide which martial art or sport is going to provide that training to you. Otherwise it's a craps shoot, join the art with the best hype, hope you learn something you want to learn.

For "real" you may figure it's best done "freestyle" in a sport like Kendo. But for any sport you need to pay attention to the rules, for any fight you need to pay attention to the rules. Chris Amberger made the point a very long time ago that even duels had rules that were followed. Something that most people would assume had no rules, certainly did. Even warfare has rules.

It's not only what the rules disallow but what they allow or require that determines the techniques that end up being used. Look at "full contact karate" with the mandatory number of kicks per round, without that rule you'd see boxing. Anybody see a distinguishable martial arts style in the UFC stuff now? I see a very recognizable and distinctive UFC style of fighting but I don't see anything I'd recognize as a martial art.

The techniques very quickly fit the rules in any contest-dominated art/sport. Kendo looks the way it does because that's what works.

And Koryu? Is it any more "realistic"? Despite the general idea that it's all battlefield derived, what I see most is a school that starts out with maybe 4-5 techniques and these get added to over the generations of peace as students want more to do. Students get bored, sensei adds techniques.

Conversely, students get few, sensei gets old, techniques get dropped, modified and simplified so that at least "something" gets left for the next generation to build on. Little of this is tested to see if it's "real" or not. Dojo storming was never very common, frankly, it's rude, but perhaps some students did get together out behind the barn to check out the effectiveness of this or that technique. If you're fast and you use a technique nobody's seen before, maybe it works, maybe it doesn't if your opponent has good reactions.

That's not really the point though, is it? Trying to find a "real" sword art is the same as trying to find that perfect kata that's unstoppable. If it was out there, we'd all know it I assure you. Same for modern war as for sword, the unstoppable weapon is certainly the atomic bomb but can you, do you, use it? How about just having an overwhelming military that is larger than the next four combined? Certainly it's unstoppable, but is it useful? It always depends, an unstoppable sword kata would leave your opponent dead. A vast unbeatable military is great if you want to build an empire but just a waste of money if you just want to do a bit of regime change.

Sooner or later, no matter what sort of technique you've found, you find something new facing you. A weapon you can't use isn't much of a threat. Best to absorb some basic principles and get really good at those, like keeping the shield wall together (have a good aggressive defence), or hit 'em from an unexpected direction (stab them in the back). It's the basic stuff you fall back on, make sure your basics are solid and you have a good idea what you want to use those basics for.

Then decide which sword school is the most realistic.

Sept 13, 2013

Public Displays of Budo

Yesterday the club did a demonstration for the Athletics Center. There were booths for the various fitness classes and the iaido/jodo club (us). I'm sure lots of other clubs were invited but aside from a few fitness instructors we were the entertainment for several hundred students lined up to buy homecoming tickets.

Now we didn't do this demo because I like public displays of budo (I do actually), or to get new students (we won't), we did it because we were asked. As a member club of the Athletics Department we get space to work out and a few lines in the booklet each year. Thats plenty to be happy about so when asked, we give back.

I feel the same about the other groups and organizations that I'm a member of. Even if I pay a membership fee, I've joined because they do things I like to do so I figure it's also my duty to lend a hand when asked. Is this common? Not so much actually, the more common response seems to be "I've paid my dues so now what are you going to do for me?" It's more the fitness club attitude than the martial arts mindset, I paid so now gimme. Thing is, a budo club usually charges for the space rental, and maybe sensei gets a small living but the folks participating are members, everyone is helping so we can all do what we love doing. A fitness club is a business with clients, everyone involved is either paid to provide a service or paying to receive it.

Many years ago I ceased to become a member of the Athletics Department and became a client instead. With the best of intentions I'm sure, some bright light with a business school education decided that the staff should think of us as clients in a store rather than members with a say. This was supposed to improve service to us folks who just wanted to lift weights in peace. Of course the service didn't improve, but the fees went up and the members, excuse me, the clients were a bit less inclined to pick up a screwdriver and fix things that were breaking down. After all, if I'm a client you need to service me not the other way around.

But I am not a client, I'm a member and I'm going to give back when asked. I'm going to entertain the kids waiting in line for tickets and I'm going to enjoy myself while doing it. It's good practice for the other members of the club.

Sept 12, 2013

Sports Budo, Kendo and Judo Compared

If you want a lot of participation in your martial art, make it a sport "they say". Kids like competing and as the multiple sports channels will indicate, adults like watching competition. Both Judo and Kendo have gone the way of competion, in the case of Kendo, it was one of the few things that got the sword arts through the change from the age of the samurai to the age of the businessman, with the roots of modern kendo going back before the Meiji but public displays of competition similar to Sumo starting up as the samurai became unemployed by the changes of modernization.

I was going to provide some specific names and dates but you folks with better connections than I've got this morning can do that yourselves, look up gekkiken. The sportification did seem to work, tiny koryu sword and jujutsu schools were soon dwarfed by the numbers and public profile of the new Kendo and Judo.

One way that Kendo and Judo have differed is that Judo went Olympic and Kendo, as run from Japan, has resisted this fiercely. What is the result of these two strategies.

First, as an Olympic sport, Judo is global while Kendo is still overwhelmingly Japanese. I don't have official numbers for Judo but the best I've found is around 2 million worldwide while there are an estimated 3 million kendo players in Japan (and not enough outside that country to make it worthwhile saying anything but 3 million). I saw the worldwide Kendo numbers a while ago and the imbalance was quite shocking, which fully justified in my mind the control Japan holds over the sport. The International Kendo Federation dues are paid on a per member basis and Japan pays well into the 90s percent of the budget. Contrast this with Judo where, again, the best numbers I can find put judoka in Japan at 200,000 and in France at almost 800,000. In comparison I found Judo numbers in the USA in the region of 20,000. USA Kendo is around a tenth of that.

Much of the international balance for Judo would be due to national support of Olympic sports. Canada mostly restricts funding to Olympic sports so there is no national or provincial money heading into Kendo at all any more. There was a brief moment of Provincial support in Ontario but that is long gone. With government money comes promotion and professional infrastructure, including office space and advertising budgets. That leads to awareness but it's the dream of someday being in the Olympics that brings in the kids (and their parents).

So that's why Judo does well world-wide, what's the catch? It's all that administration that helps promote the art, it also causes a distribution of control away from Japan and into the rest of the world but especially into the Olympic committee. Witness wrestling, a part of the Olympics since ancient Greece. It was recently booted out of the Olympics and has had to win its way back with rule changes and a lot of effort. It will again have to apply and qualify in a few years, and it will have to satisfy the needs of the Olympic Committee rather than those of its own governing body. If you want to be an Olympic sport, you abide by their rules, simple as that. You lose a large degree of control of your artform.

Kendo has joined Sportaccord, an Olympics-recognized sport body for arts that aren't Olympic. In doing so we had to change the acronym of the international body from IKF to FIK (the French version initials) because International Korfball was there first with IKF. I find that a tickle to my funnybone so I share it, but that's about as dire as the changes have been. We have had to put in a drug testing policy and sort of act like most other sports but Sportaccord doesn't interfere much that I can see. Now, while most sports in Sportaccord would love to eventually be Olympic, my impression is that Kendo is there to stay there, and prevent any other group from putting Kendo into the Olympics.

Silly you say? Think about it, if another Kendo group than the FIK managed to get Olympic recognition, that group would draw massive numbers of kendoka and, with government money, begin to overwhelm any national kendo bodies that didn't join fast enough. In other words, FIK kendo would lose it's hold, through the world championships, on worldwide kendo one way or the other. Either by ceding control of the sport to the Olympic committee or by ceding membership to the new Olympic organization.

Have these two sport strategies kept membership in kendo and judo growing? Unfortunately not, both sports are dropping in participation, with kendo going from a high of 5 million to 3 in some estimates.

What does work to get numbers up today? One estimate from a study of Judo numbers noted that in many areas you might find 50 Karate dojo and perhaps 2 for Judo. Karate is notable mostly for its vast lack of central control, there are probably as many Karate organizations in Canada as there are members in the Canadian Kendo Federation. Is the lack of central control a good thing? For membership I'm sure it is, anyone who wishes to can open a Karate dojo and as long as they can teach, they survive. Does this make for consistent, top-level instruction? Perhaps not but that's another topic altogether.

Now, it would be interesting to look at Tae Kwon Do, a Karate-like (dis)organization that became Olympic and so must be centralizing to some extent. I will leave that one as well, to someone else to investigate. My purpose here was to compare Olympic Judo vs Non-olympic but world-championship sponsoring Kendo. The difference there seems to be the concentration in Japan of Kendo vs the worldwide distribution of Judo.

Which is best?

Sept 11, 2013

The Myth of Finite Resources

The stock market is a closed system, somebody makes a dollar, someone loses that same dollar. It's a pie and as they say, you can get bigger or smaller pieces of it, but it only becomes a bigger pie if more shares are issued by the companies in the market.

Us folk in the martial arts tend to act as if we are in a stock market, with students as stocks. There is only a finite supply of students and so we all compete for our bigger piece of the pie. Nothing could be further from the truth, we don't issue students like companies issue stock, we have a vast pool of potential students that we can draw upon, and we need to switch our thinking to use this to make ourselves a bigger pie.

What we should do is make sure that anyone who shows any interest in the martial arts, finds a place. If it's not with us it ought to be with the guy down the street. This way the guy down the street sends a guy our way and there are two more folks in the arts who will tell their friends what a good idea budo is.

What we want to avoid is telling students who aren't going to join our club that the guy down the street is a dangerous fool, thus not having a student, and creating the impression in yet another person that the martial arts are dangerous things full of fools.

Got so many students that you have to turn them away? Find them a home with a nearby club or make one for them. (Students will not wait for your next intake session, they'll go take up aerobic-ropeclimbing or some such). Got lots of teacher-rank students? Kick them out to start another club. One of my buddies was a bit worried about opening a club a couple of blocks away in a large city. The result? No particular encroachment at all, as Tim Horton's has found out, you really can be on every other block and as long as there is enough of a population you can support all your franchises. People like finding what they want just down the street.

Check out dance studios or yoga classes, I suspect any town would be able to support as many martial arts clubs as it can support yoga classes, and if we had as many people in the arts as are in dance we'd be a happy bunch.

There is no way that we have reached saturation in numbers of people who would enjoy the martial arts, and until we do, the resource that we call students is not finite. Go make a bigger pie.

Sept 8, 2013

What's Your Motto

If you want to understand why you do something, take a few moments and decide what your motto should be. Companies have "vision statements" these days, but they used to have mottos like "better living through electricity" which seems to us nothing more than an ad blurb, but can go deeper into serious research into time-saving kitchen appliances which will improve the lot of humanity... or make some dosh for the shareholders.

So, having thought about it for a few days I've decided that my Iaido motto is "meeting another". Sort of counter-intuitive for a martial art that is done solo but bear with me.

First level, iai as a word really does mean something like meeting another according to some lines of koryu.

Second level, after learning the dance steps, you must start to imagine an opponent and show others where and what that opponent is doing through things like your metsuke.

Third level, after imagining an opponent you can start to respond to his actions spontaneously, then you can start to lead him into actions as you wish, and finally you can lead him into a state of non-opposition, preventing the need to draw the sword.

Fourth level, having the ability to make peace, you can lead others to the same ability.

Fifth level, and the very most important, through the practice of iai I meet others and have the chance to become their friend.

Also the simplest level.

Sept 6, 2013

If It Ain't Japanese It Ain't Budo

Or as I saw the question most recently asked, how much Japanese can you take away before it isn't budo any more.

A somewhat persistant question which has several forms. One I remember particularly was from my iaido instructor on a flight to England where we were attending a seminar. For 8 hours he asked, in many different ways, why I was doing iaido. "I mean, I'm Japanese so I have to sit around on my knees and drink tea but you have your own culture, why do you do this stuff?"

My answer then and now is that the question assumes I want to be Japanese, or that I want to learn the Japanese culture and so I'm studying iai. In my case that's an inaccurate assumption. I started Aikido because I couldn't find a zen temple and I thought it would be the next best thing. From Aikido I drifted into iaido and there you are with an answer. Of course that begs the question of why zen, but that's also easy to answer. I wanted what zen was supposed to provide, a bit of peace and quiet from the internal, eternal clanging of the cycles in my brain.

Why the Japanese cultural practice of zen? Really? You just asked that? A meditative practice that originated in India, moved through China and ended up in Japan and you say Japanese culture? The Japanese culture in zen is sort of like the fragrance you pick up when you go through a barn full of horses. It's more what sticks by accident than who you are. You may smell like the backside of a horse but you aren't a horse, if you will forgive the analogy.

What do I get out of iai? A meditative practice that allows me to cut the excessive rationalization of my mind and lets me step back to look at what I'm doing with some detachment. I don't need much culture of any description to get that from the art.

That's me. Some folks want to learn the culture of Japan, some want to be samurai, some want to learn another language, some want to chop stuff up with swords, some like the fancy duds. You can imagine that each of those folks will have a different desire for the Japanese culture of iaido (let's stick with one art for this discussion).

First, decide what you want out of the art. Then you can start to ask what you can drop from it and what must stay to make it your personal art.

Iaido is the art of drawing a Japanese sword from a scabbard and cutting in the same movement. That's about as core a description as I can give. Let's look at what we need to do that.

A Japanese sword obviously, but does it have to be made in Japan? Some claim so but as long as the sword is made correctly, balanced correctly and will not fall apart I don't see any particular requirement that it be made in Japan. It's a tool, having been in Japanese air won't likely affect its properties much, although being made in Japan will provide some Japanese folks with some pay. The argument isn't "it needs to be made in Japan" but "it's more likely to be made correctly if it's made in Japan" and I agree with that, but if it's made correctly, safely, somewhere else I'm fine with using it. If we go to shinken rather than iaito, we run into the legal requirements of Japan and in that case, you absolutely need to have a sword made in Japan if you're practicing in Japan. Anything else is illegal.

How about a hakama and the rest of the uniform? Well in the 1940s the Japanese were using military trowsers and a special belt to hold their swords while doing iaido so functionally, using the hakama, obi and uwagi we use today would not seem to be a strict requirement for practice. However, if you want to grade or participate in a tournament, a proper uniform is required and regulated. I suspect few of these uniforms are made in Japan these days, with most clothing being made in China, so I'm not sure we can call the clothing "cultural". In other words, if the swords must be made in Japan but the clothing need not be, I'm seeing a safety concern rather than a cultural requirement.

Sword and Uniform, what we need, how about where we need to do it? A dojo of course, but what's a dojo? I know of very few dedicated spaces around here that are culturally correct dojo. Mostly we have dance studios and gyms. How about Japan? Well I've been in dedicated dojo in Tokyo, Kyoto and Fukuoka and love those buildings to death, but I'm also pretty sure there are a few dojo in Japan that are usually basketball gyms so it would seem that a gym is sufficient, that the location need not be specifically, culturally correct. Of course a gym in Japan may be different than the gym down the road, I've never asked since I've assumed not.

Question: What makes a gym a dojo?

Equipment and location seem culturally neutral so far, how about instruction. Does it require a native Japanese instructor for it to be iaido? My non-resident-Japanese teacher seems not to think so since he's been teaching here for many decades. I've been teaching this stuff for a few years too, but I may be defrauding my students, I don't really know. I certainly feel like a fraud most days, yet they seem to want me to continue teaching despite my own low opinion of my knowledge. That I'm not Japanese doesn't seem to bother them, or the Japanese who come from Japan to do seminars, they haul my ass up front and tell me to help teach whether or not I want to... and I really would rather just practice, it's hard to listen, learn and teach what sensei just said. Always tempting to expand and explain or fall back on "what I know".

Let's get off my case and onto my sensei for a moment, because there is a bit of cultural stuff to tease out there. Not long ago my sensei was accused of "not being Japanese any more" which he readily agrees with. He hasn't lived there since the early '70s and rarely visits. So despite the looks, the accent and the ability to speak the language, he's "not Japanese". He doesn't understand the modern culture, his references are a generation out of date. Is this the culture we're talking about? Apparently not because he is not accused of being unable to teach iaido. We have another local sensei who is accused of being a throwback to the Samurai era, his attitudes and manners are so far removed from modern Japan that visitors often make this comment. Again, a teacher out of his time, not of today's Japan. All this seems to indicate to me that the relevent culture we are talking about in iaido is not the modern Japanese culture, but that of the samurai era, and if we accept that, we'd better say that "you can't do iaido unless you are samurai class and, in most cases, from Tosa Han".

There are still arguments going on in my iaido koryu that accuse a past headmaster of treason because he went across the water to Osaka to teach iaido when up to then it had been reserved for those in Tosa (or Kochi as it was known by then). In my opinion as an interloper to the koryu (hey, blame my teachers and their teachers, I was offered, I didn't steal it) I'd say that the culture we're talking about is not Japanese, it's pre-Japan (pre 1868, pre-national). But the argument stops there if we assume that, then very few of us are doing iaido by that definition so let's go back to "Japanese culture" rather than "Edo-era Tosa Han culture".

How about the language? Does iaido need to be taught in Japanese? I teach using Japanese terminology, I count in Japanese and break the kata into waza and kihon and kamae with Japanese names, but I can't speak or understand a word of Japanese. It's all jargon to me, jargon being a set of highly defined terminology that allows a subject to be discussed with language shortcuts. "Chudan" is a lot shorter than, "the stance where your right foot is forward and your sword is aimed at your opponent's throat". Jargon isn't culture, language is culture. Knowing A meaning for -jutsu isn't the same as being able to discuss the artwork of Hokkusai in Japanese. Drop me in the middle of Tokyo and there's a good chance I'd starve to death trying to order food at a restaurant.

Etiquette? I think we're getting closer to what most people think of as culture here, and for those with little use for politeness, the bowing and deference of a Japanese dojo may seem quite alien. But polite is polite, and I'm old enough to remember a time when I stopped and took my hat off as a funeral drove by, and I opened doors for women, gave them my seat on a bus and held chairs for them (and they didn't yell at me for doing it). I remember when kids were expected to be quiet while the grown-ups were talking and I got the strap at school for disrupting the class. In other words, nothing in Japanese etiquette came as a shock to my system. In fact, for most kids today in the arts the form of the etiquette seems mostly dislocated from the original function of politeness and safety. The precise angles of the bow are paid more attention than the mental attitude behind it. There is more instruction on how to do the opening reiho smoothly and quickly so as not to go over time in a grading than on what the motions of the ritual mean. But my complaints in this aren't aimed at Westerners entirely, there are younger Japanese visitors who seem to have the same trouble, confusing form for intent while losing the polite niceities.The difference seems more generational than cultural, I have no trouble getting along with the older Japanese whose etiquette seems closer to my old-fashioned ideals of getting along.

Could we replace bowing to the sword with not bowing to the sword? I suppose so, but why? You'd replace it with a moment of silence or some other action that meant the same thing so why not just do what we do. And therein lies the reason I teach in a Japanese manner, with Japanese words and Japanese dress and Japanese manners even though I'm not very concerned with Japanese culture. Why not do it that way, it's much less fuss and bother and the meaning behind the manners is what counts, the outside shapes are only reminders of the inside reality which, as far as I'm concerned, is culturally independent.

But that's me. I would be happy with a quiet space where I can be alone with my thoughts and concentrate on understanding the meaning within the movements of any art similar in content to iaido. I find iaido particularly useful in itself, it's content fits my needs and its form is not offensive so I practice.

Others will need other things. Those who want to learn the culture of Japan will want to learn the language and most especially, go to Japan to train. The ones who like the cool duds will want a new uniform every couple of months. Those who want to chop stuff up will want to discuss niku and togishi.

What you want out of your budo will determine what you can take away or change and what you must keep.

Sept 6, 2013

Japanese Culture and Budo

I do the Japanese budo stuff, Aikido, Iaido, Jodo and Niten Ichiryu so over the last 30 years I've had to deal with the Japanese culture thing many times. Enough to actually wonder why it comes up so often. Later I may discuss the superficial arguments but for now I'd like to go a bit deeper.

Aikido is large and international, taught by thoroughly Westernized Japanese and Westerners so the "culture" didn't really arise until the Westerners got highly enough ranked to be named examiners, which was we assumed, an automatic thing. Actually we figured the rank was the permission but apparently not. It was news to our local Japanese as well, that you had to be named an examiner separately from gaining the rank required. I have been out of the organizational side of the art for quite a while but I assume that bit of culture has been sorted out by a lot of Westerners leaving the organization or the organization smartening up. (Or both.)

Before you figure I'm just being persnickety and unfairly implying that the Japanese were changing the rules to keep control of the art through their local reps, there exist, tucked away in drawers, examiner's licenses which were given to Westerners who were far from the rank required today. The rules actually did change and will continue to change with the circumstances in ways that have little to do with culture and much to do with the flow of money and control. When the art was small, Westerners had to be allowed to grant rank so the art would grow. When the art got big enough to support professional teachers, too many examiners meant a dilution of finite resources, hence the rule changes. (We can talk about the myth of finite resources another time).

Understand that I'm fine with maintaining control through rule changes, it's up to those at the top to do as they wish, just don't call it culture. Control is extra-cultural, it is universal, but culture is absolutely a tool of control. Who owns the culture, has the control, and the mechanism is exclusion, shunning from the group if the cultural rules are violated. Now, in a religious community that has a lot of force, who wants to be excluded from their family? But in the budo context, folks would be well advised to be careful what they try, the culture card is weak and can backfire.

A nice case study would be the Karate world where the links between Japan/Okinawa and the west were never particularly strong I suppose. Today the vast majority of students have almost no connection with Japan or its culture, and the art is rolling along just fine. The cultural connection started out weak and the control was never really there.

Aikido, as I mentioned, had a much stronger connection to Japan, or at least to the founder and his first generation of students, but with each generation that control by culture, the threat of exclusion from instruction by the Japanese is weakening. In that case it's through the realization by some Westerners that they have been practicing for longer than the Japanese at the top. Take away their nationality (the cuture card) and assume the same amount of practice per week and you've got a reversal of seniority.

Small arts with first generation students are easily controlled by the founders because there is a threat, no training. Push too hard at the second and third generations however and they will leave, the threat of being excluded from instruction is ultimately hollow. The Western instructors are there to provide the instruction and they aren't moving back to Japan any time soon.

OK I think I've got it shaped in my head now. At the beginning a few Westerners get instruction from the Japanese and that was the control, the direct contact of teacher to student. Actually not so much control as obligation, the natural debt a student owes a teacher. As the Westerners start to teach, their students have that direct connection to the Westerners, not the Japanese, there is nothing the students owe the original instructors except the respect you would give to your grandparents. At that point the ranking system kicks in, and the guys at the top control through that, rank comes from Japan so Japan gets the control. But that only works until the Westerners get near to rank-granting status, now the original Japanese instructors (the ones with the direct teacher to student connection) start to retire or pass away and even the "grandfather" status is lost, all that is left is the passing of money up the chain and the paper back down again.

What happens if the guys at the top start to crack down on all the "easy grades" being given to the Westerners? (In order to prevent the local Westerners giving out their own grades which makes them independent from the Japanese.) What happens is that they squeeze the students out of the organization. Change the rules and students get irritated, slow down the progression through the ranks and the students get unhappy (they want to progress not run their heads into brick walls). Tell the students that their teachers, their direct contact with the art, are ranked too high (who ranked them? are their examiners crap too?) and they get offended, you've just told them their teachers, the guys they have a personal relationship with, are no good. So who is good? Presumably those younger Japanese now in charge of the organization who will now take over the instruction of the students from the original generation of Westerners. Certainly that's how the students will see it... and perhaps some Western students will like this, going with the Japanese will be a way of jumping the queue over their senior students.

But most will simply follow their teachers out of the organization and establish their own ranking system. In some situations and with enough numbers leaving, the original organization may well just have to take them back under new rules (which often look suspiciously like the original rules).

So far we've looked at the growth characteristics of most arts in the west, but there is one further example that works toward control and centralization over splitting into multiple organizations, and that is sport. The examples are Judo and Kendo, and they have a subtle difference. Any sport with a single or highly prestigious and nationally supported international championships can enforce a strict control from the top. Usually through a head organization and national bodies which suppress breakaway groups. The mechanism to suppress breakaway is of course exclusion from the championships, you join our group or you don't play. Both Judo and Kendo have world championships, but the difference is that Judo went Olympic and Kendo has resisted. The result is that Judo control comes from Olympic organizations which tap into national sports budgets and are run like a multinational company. Kendo is still tightly controlled from Japan.

Nothing wrong with either case, there are arguments for and against both these models of sport/budo and maybe we can talk about that some day, but for now the mechanism of an international championships should be noted as a way to control a budo.

So we have teacher to student obligation, grading certificates and sports championships which all act as control mechanisms on an art. But wait you say, going back to the culture question, there are indefinable, intangible aspects of the art that only a study of, an understanding of the Japanese culture will explain! Take away the cultural intangibles and it isn't budo! Fair enough, but I have to take that on faith, those things being intangible and my seeing nothing like that over 30 years of practice with local and visiting Japanese instructors. Certainly the budo which include sport (Karate, Kendo, Judo etc.) show no dominance by Japanese competitors that can't be explained by the number ratios of competitors as vs. intangible cultural knowledge.

My own feelings, as a somewhat wishy-washy Japanophile (I like the zen aesthetic, wabi-sabi, not so keen on cosplay and anime, but I really really love some of the Japanese who have taught me) are that appeals to cultural intangibles are more a matter of maintaining control of students than trying to make better budoka.

I think I'll leave it there for now.

Sept 5, 2013

Please Don't Feedback the Sensei

Teachers like to teach, and after tournaments or gradings they just love to give feedback. Never mind that they aren't supposed to do this, and never mind that any feedback they give will be the same feedback they gave to you at the seminar two hours before, they just can't resist.

As participants it's up to you to keep these sensei from making you both unhappy by not asking them why you lost or what you need to do to improve. Instead, when you see one of these helpful-faced folks heading your way just tell them that you will ask your sensei for advice.

This way you will avoid being told that you didn't pass because your hand was in the wrong spot by three inches, or that your uniform was messy or that your back was bent four degrees away from where it should be. By getting told one or two things you will first experience anger that you failed for such a small thing, then you will begin to believe that it was the only thing, and obsess on it to the point where your training gets all out of kilter.

You failed for a whole bunch of reasons, more than any judge has time to tell you, and certainly more than any judge would be able to correct for you and everyone else in the room within the three minutes you have to clear up and get to the bar. Best not to encourage them to tell you anything at all because the first thing they think of will be what you are trying to fix for the next year.

They should know better, but help them help you by not feedbacking the sensei.

Sept 3, 2013

The Best

We all want to practice the best martial art don't we? Well which one was that? Were some old martial arts schools clearly superior to others in their ability to produce fighters? How does one test this? Wasn't that what the old UFC thing was supposed to figure out? And what it produced was "the best fighters who fight within the particular rules of this game". The best I've come up with on this question is some research by Trulson years ago on Juvenile Delinquents (quaint old term) and the difference between "traditional" and "modern" training on their character and aggressiveness. Same art though, different training methodology, and there were differences between those simply taught how to fight and those taught how to fight but also made to suffer through the lectures on why you don't use these skills because...

Unfortunately, that would come down to the teacher, not the different art... or perhaps more accurately, the lineage within the art since teachers tend to teach as they were taught.

Most schools rose, were refined, were "improved", and stayed popular (taught what the kids wanted to learn) through the generations during long years of peace. If the original 3-4 kata were "found on the battlefield" the 58 more that became attached to the school were certainly not. And I would offer as proof those schools who make a big noise about how their sensei went out and tried these kata against other schools. If it weren't rare, these stories wouldn't have any value and wouldn't be told.

Hey, why did whazzizname write the Hagakure in the first place? Middle of that "golden age" of koryu schools and here's some feller telling everyone they're a bunch of panzies.

Again, let's go back to the UFC or MMA or whatever, you start with a bunch of different martial artists, of different cultures even, lay down the rules and throw all those thousands of techniques together. Ten or 15 years later what do you have? Not thousands more techniques, but several techniques that work for the "battlefield" as it is defined, and not one recognizable old martial art at all, or the closest being "American/Canadian JuJutsu". With effectiveness as the criteria for value in a technique, you get less techniques, not more.

Or as I say often, "you want to know the best way to hit someone on the head with a sword.... go do kendo". The big criticism of kendo by those who don't practice kendo is that they don't have "as many techniques as we do" so of course we would win in a real fight. I dunno, I don't do kendo but I'd still put my money on the kid who can smack me three times on the head before I can decide which technique to use on him. Effectiveness and multiple techniques doesn't really go together in my mind. Wanna win? 2-3 techniques and do them slick as poop through a goose. When you retire and teach, that's the time to polish up the rest of the curriculum.

Best art? The one that's just down the street and has five classes a week you can attend.

August 29, 2013

Form and Function

Iaido is a strange sort of budo, it's one of the few where function follows form. In many cases, all you get is form.

In my budo career I started with Aikido where sensei would show an effortless technique four times and wave at us to do it. Of course we beginners (the entire class) would fire up the muscles and force each other to the ground by grinding bones and falling on each other. It was only months and years later that we started to see the form mattered, that posture and timing and distance and balance had something to do with it. Function and then form.

Most kata-based weapons koryu follow the same pattern, although not quite so roughly at first, after all if you muscle the bokuto around too much you end up with broken heads, or worse, broken bokuto. Still, it's pure speed and jumping around unbalanced for quite a while until the idea that timing and posture might help.

I practiced Tae Kwon Do for many years and we practiced kata in the traditional way, with long stances and precise blocks, but stood up into a boxing stance to spar. An interesting split between form and function, the explanation being that we did kata to develop posture and balance and all that fun stuff but a boxing stance was just more functional in a fight. Kind of hard to unite form with function under that system, the connections were not obvious.

One of my pet peeves is the idea that you mustn't learn from a book, that in fact it's impossible to learn from a book. The classical example is the fellow who turned up at a karate seminar and did a very good kata except that he did it in zig zags across the floor. Eventually came the realization that he'd learned it from a book where the photos went zig zag across the page. Proof positive that.... he learned the form shown in the book very well, up to and including the zig zags. Of course there was no function to the zigs, or the zags, but that was what wasn't in the book. You can get form from a book, the feeling of sensei's hands on your chest rocking you off balance from what you figured was a perfect stance (it looked right in the mirror) is something much harder to write about.

So, what about iaido? Today I was looking at some video of a group that is not Kendo Federation but was practicing ZKR iaido. There are lots of them around, ZKRI being somehow understood as a "public" set of iai open for anyone's use. Fine with me, nobody gets hurt and maybe we get some folks who want to grade, but my inevitable first response is "why?". What do those folks get out of their practice if they're not kendo federation? I can plainly see that they don't get the "riai" of the kata. Timing is off, posture is wrong, they've got the form sort of right but there's nothing under it, no feeling, no function.

Of course there must be some reason for them to practice the set, but the most likely is one that besets a lot of our own students once they start learning koryu... kata kollecting. The idea that if you learn lots and lots of forms you will eventually "get it". Of course the hanshi tell them that they can learn everything from Mae (the very first form), and that after 50 years' practice said hanshi is "just starting to understand it", but the students press on learning those forms.

Form without function is empty, function without form is inefficient.

We start from form in iaido and some people never get beyond it. It looks like this, I'm doing it like that, so I know it. But you have to learn the riai says sensei, and form-boy says "I know where the opponent is and what he's doing, you told me that the first day".

Yup, OK carry on.

There's a reason the Federation doesn't demand "riai" until 7 or 8 dan. It takes that long to get over in-form-itis, the inflammation of the know-it center of the brain that causes a collection of book-learning and blocks the nerve pathways from the hara to the head.

Symptoms include brand new outfits for demonstrations with velcro fasteners to keep it neat and tidy, an excessive obsession with The Book and an over-fondness for exact angles and fist-width measurements of the sword position. Diagnosis is a complete absence of colour in the eyes as they are turned completely inward.

Of course the other disease is function-osis which causes an irrational pride in chopping up old mat covers and hallucinations of ninjers dropping from the ceiling. Diagnosis by a wildly swirling wide-eyed, unblinking stare.

Have we discussed balance?

August 28, 2013

Money is Not Important

We're about to have another meeting on "Whither the Budo". We have these a couple times a year and we always end up on the subject of money. What are the dues spent on (the same things they've always been), and how do we get more membership (which translates as more dues).

Someone usually comes up with a combination of the two.... we need to spend more money to get more members. That can be advertising, introductory demonstrations, free seminars, visiting instructors and all sorts of other such things. All good things.

But none of that fits into a shrinking budget, and in tough times the first thing to go is advertising isn't it? Provided you did any in the first place of course. Thing is, what we really need to be talking about is "how do we keep the members we have". It's been a very long time since I heard from a martial arts group that said they were growing, so I'm thinking we better concentrate on what we have rather than what we want.

And for keeping your people, money is not important. I'm speaking about your typical non-profits here of course, not national sports bodies with professional administrators, when you have paid employees you need to pay them to work... money is an incentive. For organizations where folks work for free, money is no incentive. I work for free... no I tell a lie, I work for negative and so do most of you. You put in much more money at your local level than you could ever get back from a regional or national federation, so getting some money from HQ will have very little effect on what you're doing or what you're willing to do. At best it's a bit of a pat on the back, at worst it's insulting and demeaning "you figure giving me a couple hundred makes up for the money I've spent??? and now you want me to fill in a form? You don't trust me?" Just about the best way I know of to get rid of good people is to tell them you think they're trying to steal from the organization that they've spent 20 years helping to build. I've seen it and I still get heartsick to think about the amazing people that have been lost or are just hanging on out of loyalty to their teachers.

Organizations have no honour, no loyalty, no memory, people have that. The instant you turn a group of people into a set of administrative rules you have lost any right to expect loyalty from the membership, and who is going to volunteer their time and money to a set of forms? No matter how well written.

Another good way to get rid of folks is to promise support and then yank it away. These are people who have spent their lives doing what they have said they would do, and now they're working with (for?) people who don't think twice about doing the HR dance with the dollars... "we never said our first offer was the final figure, and where's the signature on the contract anyway?" This is handshake country folks, this is the place where "we always did it that way" has some meaning. Labour lawyers not wanted and should not be needed. Again, I've seen it over the years and even reached into my own pocket to bail out buddies who suddenly ended up with bills that should have been covered, WOULD have been covered.

I may just do a list of how to ruin a volunteer organization one of these days, but it all comes down to figuring those doing the work are employees rather than partners and you have clients rather than members. In other words, you are confusing a volunteer federation with a profit-making business.

The dues become more important than the dudes.

What works, what keeps those who volunteer and contribute is a recognition that they are needed, wanted and appreciated. I'm not talking about an awards banquet at the end of the year, I hate those things as much as I hate the plaques and speaches. No what's best is to let people get on with doing what they do best, growing the art. Get the right people in the right positions, give them permission and then get out of their way. Trust your folks to do the right thing and only interfere when they are in danger of doing major damage.

The right people in the right place. Those who want to run things are only occasionally the ones you want to run things in a volunteer organzation because they want to "run things" which means "(micro)managing" telling other people what to do. What you want from the guy in charge is someone who doesn't want to do the little stuff, who will look around and find someone who can do things AND THEN GET OUT OF THE WAY AND LET THEM DO IT.

Figure it's a bit hard to find someone who can talk others into working for free? It is, but what's even more difficult is to find someone who can do that and then watch their backs. Someone who will say "go do it" and when it all goes pear shaped say "hey, blame me not those guys, they tried their best". This is not someone who wants to be in charge and applauded for the wonderful job they do.

This is a masochist... or someone who figures the art is bigger than they are, and you know what? I've seen these guys too, guys who will believe in enthusiasm, find ways to support youngsters who are trying to build, and reach into their own pockets to get things going. Build the membership.

These guys are the gold, not the stuff sitting in the bank account.

August 27, 2013

I'm In With the In Crowd

Specialized information and insider facts are great ways of being "in" and the internet is probably the number one place for this type of info-elitism because everyone can be one of the elite.

I'm speaking of course, and as always, of the budo world, but this happens in every field out there. Having watched the net grow up I have seen folks learn a little bit about an old school in one place and suddenly become an expert in another. I'm sure anyone reading this will remember at least three instances where "everyone knew" a lineage was illegitimate and dozens would vigorously correct anyone who said different. In most cases "everyone" eventually figured out that life is more complex than what they assumed.

I don't see that happening as much now. Information on the net has sort of grown up like a kid, and we've gone through the early teens. My grandfather used to say that there was "nothing in the world as smart as a 15 year old boy, except a 14 year old girl". If you have a little esoteric knowledge you want to share it fast, before someone else does, not so much to help others but to show that you know it. You're one of the in crowd.

That's harder to do nowadays, since everything seems to suddenly be on youtube and wikipedia. I haven't bothered to unpack my boxes of books and old newsletters since I can pop open my browser and do a quick search. I used to know a lot, now I know very little compared to google's crawled and indexed web.

Fortunately my ego hasn't suffered since facts and figures don't mean much to what I do these days. There is a difference between information and knowledge, between what you know and what you can do with what you know. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 so the 800th anniversary is coming up soon. That's a fact, do we celebrate or mourn it in the age of the prism? That takes some knowledge, the ability to put facts together and come up with a testable hypothesis and do some analysis.

I know all the facts I can find about my various koryu, but I don't "know" any of them until I have lived inside them for a lot of years, absorbed the lessons of their kata and answered a thousand questions. (That's why a sensei teaches, you can't think of all the questions yourself, you need help from your students.)

The days of keeping information secret from other schools because they may use it to defeat you are over. Life and death duels are illegal and we all saw what the "mixed martial art" idea came to within a very short time. Which art beats which? Need a few rules... oops now everyone plays to the rules and it's an entirely different thing. There's no point in hoarding information in the age of cellphone video, no point in giving people hell for posting to youtube, the information is out there.

The knowledge, as always, you have to pay for.

August 20, 2013

Cool Duds

It's the cool duds that got you into the budo, come on, admit it. The angry white pajamas for aikido, the big swirly girly skirt for all the koryu, the frog-buttons on the tai chi outfit, oh, the montsuki, with the family crest no less!

Don't laugh, people join the arts for all sorts of reasons, and some of them find a reason to stay. I have to admit, for those who stay for the duds I'm a bit mystified, the clothing is rather standardized compared to your usual cosplay groups.

My own path into the arts isn't all that common but it's not unusual, I came in looking for what I found, a place to study myself. In 1980 there wasn't a zen temple in town but there was an aikido club starting up, and according to the back of a "Judoman" comic I still have tucked into my record collection, aikido was a strange zen-like martial art so I joined up. Not a big jump from that to iaido which I first encountered at a summer camp in 1983 which led to my current teacher and the kendo federation and jodo and niten all the rest of it. I just "went with the flow" and am happy enough to keep learning and figuring myself out. Thing is, whatever was bothering me back in 1980 is long gone and now I'm afraid I'm mostly made up of martial arts and not much else... maybe some carpentry, maybe some molecular biology but at the moment, mostly budo.

If you stick around long enough you'll discover that the budo isn't something you put on and off like a cool outfit, it's like the clothes sort of melt into your skin.

August 19, 2013

Everyday Weapons Care

A quick first word about wood since there's an ongoing search for the perfect bokuto. Wood is not a homogenous material. You can talk about steel or PVC plastic as having this or that strength and expect that your piece has that property. The properties of wood are only reliable in a statistical way. Hickory is, on average, heavier and tougher than pine, but find a piece with a crack, a knot, or one that grew very quickly and was dried to death and you may find it weaker than an old growth, green pine stick. Then of course there's the way you use your weapon, someone with stone hands and a macho way of practicing that swings wood against wood can expect to go through a lot of weapons. Swing a baseball bat at a telephone pole, do you expect it to last? Of course not. The "full contact" folks are not my favourite customers I'm afraid, if they get a good piece from me I'm a great fellow, if they get one that doesn't last I'm a terrible guy. That's fine, I can live with that, but I fear for their safety. Full contact should involve kendo bogu and flexible shinai not naked eyes and bare throats when there are stiff and heavy chunks of wood flying around the dojo.

No matter which way you practice (and please, for your own shoulders' sake, soften up and absorb those hits) you should care for your tools.

If you find your wooden weapons getting a bit grubby and perhaps a bit sticky, it's probably the finish. Lacquer or varnish is oddly sticky on weapons, and it seems to be prone to picking up even stickier bits of dead skin and dirt. Now that's my situation, but for some folks who sweat a lot on their hands, a varnished weapon may be slippery.

Sand the grubby stuff and the varnish off (don't be afraid to sand your weapons folks) and reapply a drying oil like Tung or Boiled Linseed oil (some "tung oil" finishes, such as Minwax, have varnish so check to see you've got straight tung).

If you like oiling your weapons you can use a non-drying (non-polymerizing) oil like lemon or walnut or what have you but don't let your weapon dry out or it will warp. Speaking of warpage, if you have a jo that develops a slight warp, don't panic, you may have a "summer jo" and it may straighten out again as the humidity changes. Have a couple of those myself... actually warped jo are all I ever have, the good ones get sold out from under my hands.

It's the warping that prompts the use of varnish which seals the wood better than the drying oils. If you want to keep the varnish, do clean it once in a while with fine steel wool or a plastic kitchen scrubber and lemon oil, that will remove the dirt and skin and leave a bit of lubricant behind. Wax is about as sticky as varnish and isn't as good a seal.

If you find a dry spot on the wood and it's not rough you don't need to sand it, but you do need to get some oil onto that area to seal it. As wood dries it gets more dense but it also gets less flexible so dry spots will eventually become brittle and splinter.

In general: Green wood is very flexible, but light and dentable as the fibres are far apart and soft. As it dries it gets smaller, more dense and more hard but also as mentioned more brittle.

Dry any wood enough and it breaks, which is why you should always bake your breaking boards in the oven before the big demonstration.

August 18, 2013

One Size Fits All

Over the years I've done a lot of defending of the idea of seitei gata, standard forms, but I am not without an appreciation for the problems that standardization can cause. Although many folks have complained that Seitei contaminates the old schools, I've never had much of a concern about that. Koryu is broad, it can take care of itself, and those who confuse seitei and koryu are generally beginners. The differences between seitei gata iaido and koryu iai are largely superficial.

But it's that superficiality that concerns me, the idea that form tops function because there is one, correct way to do things. With a standardized form there is a tendency to assume that it is the correct way of doing things... well OK if you want to win a tournament or pass a grading there is indeed an acceptable way of performing a movement. But I'm going to argue that doesn't mean one size fits all, and I'm going to argue that doesn't mean there's A correct way to do a similar koryu kata.

Last first, the very fact that there is a noticeable difference between a seitei kata and a koryu kata should be proof enough that there is not a single way to do a movement. To be specific, for the ZNKR iai (seitei) kata called Mae, we cut horizontally, shift the rear knee forward and cut vertically as we move the front foot forward. For the ZNIR iai (toho) kata of the same name we do not shift the knees or feet at all. For the MJER line that I study the usual way to perform Mae is to shift the front foot and follow with the rear knee as we cut vertically. Three lines, same kata, three different distances... which one is correct?

I hope that it's fairly obvious that there isn't a correct distance and a moment's thought would give us that answer regardless of examples. So why do we have to move the knee and then the foot to pass a grading in ZNKR iai? Why can't we have our opponent be at some other distance and do some other move with the feet? On a simple level, if we allow that, we make it very difficult for the judges to know whether or not you've made a mistake or deliberately chosen an alternate distance. On the next level, it makes it very difficult for you, the challenger, to prove to the judges that you have deliberately chosen a different distance. We don't actually require our students to demonstrate that sort of thing until 4-5dan or so, allowing variation like that from the beginning is not reasonable. Finally, the seitei is a bit different than everyone's koryu, so everyone has the same opportunity to show the judges that they can control their sword and body in order to perform what they're asked to perform. If everyone used their koryu movements we would see habit and not skill.

Standardization has a use, but it's not to teach THE correct way of doing a technique, your opponent may not move the way the standard kata says he moves, so you must use skill and not habit. This brings me back to the first concern, one size fits all. To some, the standard can become a fetish. If Mae is done from seiza and you can fail for not moving the rear knee then the front foot, surely you can fail for not doing the kata from seiza! This seems obvious, the book says it is done from seiza so it is done from seiza.

Here is where I will point out there is teki (the opponent, in this case imaginary but standardized, defined) and there is the swordsman who is performing his half of the dance. Just as the opponent may be doing slightly different things in different lines, and it is unreasonable for us to assume that we can do one single movement to match all possible opponents, it is also unresaonable for us to assume that all swordsmen are identical. A person with a replacement knee or hip, a person with a missing foot or whithered thigh may not physically be able to sit in seiza. Is it reasonable to tell them that they cannot pass a grading? Actually it's perfectly reasonable, an organization may do as it wishes with their ranking standards so why not refuse these people the chance to grade. But is it reasonable to say these people cannot do iaido? To me it's a matter of what is correct as opposed to what is standardized. A person who cannot sit in seiza may not be able to do what is described in the book, but that same person would never be in seiza in the first place. Correct iaido is as much about what the swordsman does as it is about what the opponent does, and to teach that you should be in seiza when you can not be there, or even when you should not be there is bad teaching. It is not our job as teachers to encourage our older or injured students to get into seiza if this will shorten the lifetime of their knees. To be blunt, it is irresponsible for us to demand that our students risk their future mobility for our whims today. It is irresponsible for us to demand it of ourselves, iaido is about being prepared, training that prevents us from doing our job in the future is bad training.

We need to be honest about the demands we put on our students. If we say "you can't grade because you can't do seiza" that's one thing, but if we say "you can't do iaido because you can't do seiza" that's another thing entirely. The seitei gata tend to encourage the idea that one size fits all, and the koryu, at least as I teach it, does exactly the opposite, the student and the teacher must adapt the art to the man not the other way around.

One size fits one.

By all means, try to be as standard in your seitei gata as you can, do it as close to the book as possible, and leave the worries about whether or not you can pass for that attempt to the judging committee. If they decide it's close enough you'll pass but never think that they are passing judgement on your iai, just your approach to their standard. In fact, a panel passes judgement on how close they believe you approached the standard established by the head of your organization, in my case the iaido section of the CKF. You do your kata as closely to the standard as you understand it, and the panel judges you according to their understanding of that standard. It's a wonder anyone passes.

August 16, 2013

Evolution and Budo

Since I have recently been talking about economics and budo (the mechanism of perceived value of koryu schools being compared to the mechanism of perceived value of upscale fashion handbags), perhaps I will move to biological science as a mechanism to analyse budo. I may lately be giving budo more of a central role in the world than some might figure it deserves, but tough, this is what I'm not paid to do eh! And besides, if the universe of ideas is infinite, ideas about budo are at the center of the universe right?

As one of those who has heard that the fundamental concept of evolution is "survival of the fittest", it seems tempting to use the idea for looking at older schools of the martial art (koryu). After all, we have a unit, the school, and a mechanism of selection (everyone dies in a battle and the school dies out) so why not?

Let's quickly examine the hypothesis. It seems obvious even as I'm typing this that the death of a swordsman (or spearman or what have you) isn't based on what he knows of a school, but on what he's doing at the time he dies. This might mean we have to make the unit of selection the kata... or the waza (the specific movement of or from a kata he's using to attack or defend). That means we can't explain the survival of schools, only of specific waza through selection. But even worse, we need to question our mechanism of selection. Is warfare reasonable as a factor in the selection of schools? Schools are most common through the Edo period, rather than in the period of wars before that. Very few schools stretch back to the wars... maybe those are the "winners" and after that the selection was lifted?

Wow I'm getting hammered by myself before I even get started here. Let's change our hypothesis, make the unit of selection popularity rather than death on the battlefield or by a duel. So the most popular schools are those that survived and those which died out were not popular.

Rather a useless line of enquiry I'm afraid, the argument is circular, the popular schools are popular because they are popular. While I believe that, after all it's a tautology, to discuss reasons for popularity we are back in the realms of economics and ad campaigns. To get away from that we have to find a selection pressure that works to distinguish a dead school from one that is still here. Effectiveness at combat seems not to work, not enough combat. Backing by the authorities, word of mouth, catering to the kiddy classes, all that is likely effective but hardly Darwinian.

The core of the problem might be my assumption that there is a selective pressure on the budo at all. "Survival of the fittest" only works if we have something meaningful to be fittest at. Evolution doesn't work to improve anything, there is no drive to perfection, it only works on the basis of "good enough". If there's a problem, and some units can survive that problem long enough to reproduce, that's good enough. Those who don't survive long enough do not reproduce. The "fittest" only means "reproducer".

In the absence of a selective pressure there's no particular nudge to keep or to lose any trait. It's a random thing. Green eyes, unless they cause you to see tigers better at night, are likely to remain at their current numbers in the next generation, or may go up, or may go down depending on random genetic recombination. If they aren't being pressured they won't be selected. If they're linked closely to something being pressured, maybe they will be selected but what are the budo linked to that's under pressure? Spare time?

Ah, but we all know that green eyes are NOT in any way a neutral thing. They are actually very influential to reproduction because they are damned attractive. Green Eyed Ladies and all that. "Survival of the fittest" is only one aspect of evolution, "Sexual Selection" is also involved and in the first world sexual selection is likely our driving evolutionary force since things like mass famine aren't operating.

If something isn't being pressured, it may still be favoured.

I don't think the budo are under any serious selective pressure at this time. They are not improving or degrading due to the fitness of their techniques at all. Students don't determine which schools survive to the next generation based on their effectiveness as a fighting system it's more along the lines of those green eyes, the peacock's tail, the nice song of that attractive wren next door. In other words, in a world where basic needs are sufficient, where the population isn't competing to survive physically to reproductive age, where there's enough of the basics to have spare time for other things, there is time for the budo and a chance to favour one over the other.

In a time of war, survival in the next few months, techniques of efficient death will be favoured over things that take forever to learn. You get basic training rather than complicated kata. Machines to assist this become selected over antique and less efficient machines like swords or spears. Guns trump blades and for warfare today the budo have been mostly out-evolved.

Two less dramatic examples of the need for peace and plenty, the absence of selective pressure for the budo to survive. In times of recession and tough job markets we get less students in the martial arts than when money is less tight. In places where there is more population to draw students from, we have more students. Soooo low spare time and money is a selective pressure and schools can out-compete by offering short cheap classes? Or low population is a pressure so we can compete by... encouraging folks already in the school to have more kids?

Wait, you argue, the arts do survive tough job markets and the changing whims of society. Yes they do. There is something in the budo that is of value to some people, which make them worth keeping around even when times are tough. I don't think it's the efficiency of the arts as methods of fighting, but I think the fighting has something to do with it.

While "survival of the fittest" isn't a likely model for analyzing the budo, and while "sexual selection" may offer some insights similar to our previous economic analysis, let's face it, we're looking for some other reason than mechanistic evolution to explain the survival and growth of the old schools.

Finding that is my koan of the day.

August 13, 2013

Function vs Value

Steve Quinlan notes on the last blog post that people value originals over copies when talking about artwork. Even when the original and the copy are the same monetary value, the original is preferred.

This has been studied, but we already know it's true or premium fashion brands would not exist. Here we come to the concept of function vs value, the place where we all say "a handbag from Wallget will carry your lipstick just as well as the LV bag. (If you know what LV stands for in this sentence you know the mechanics and effects of branding.)

Same with the budo of course, the best known koryu are perceived to have the most value, more so if they are promoted by people we consider to be authorities (Madison Avenue Scientists* or celebrity endorsement) and more so if the information has been available "from the beginning" (old brands are good brands). Think of the early writings in English on Katori Shinto Ryu by Donn Draeger. That rather small school was instantly established as the "it art" of budo. Nothing wrong with that of course, but things may have been different if Draeger had studied Jigen Ryu instead.

Along the way other high-fashion-like koryu have been added to the pantheon, those who are similar to the prototype, the ones that hand-stitch their bags in small shops in Milan are at the top of the value chain as much or more for their rarity and exclusivity (order an Hermes bag and wait five years for delivery) as for their functionality.

Just as we have the median level fashion lines like Michael Kors or Ralph Lauren with their mass produced upscale lines, so we have our standardized budo in the various seitei gata sword arts from the ZNKR, ZNIR or DNIR. As you might figure a Michael Kors dress as an introduction to Dior, you could consider the seitei as a gateway drug to the koryu.

Steve mentions kendo as similar to seitei iai as both are compared to the koryu sword arts, but I beg to differ. Kendo is a different animal altogether, simply because it has a sport aspect and there is a world championship. You will do kendo in the kendo federation or you will never have a shot at the worlds. For this reason alone it is outside the value chain, there is no alternative to that brand if you are into the competition.

Finally we come to the hipsters who are using vintage canvas messenger bags they found in second hand shops, or are making their own. You can't get more exclusive than making your own bag, but of course nobody else has to admit that your bag is of infinite value (you can't buy it no matter how rich you are, you can only make it yourself) since you haven't spent a lot of money or word of mouth establishing your bag as the very highest in value. Think "one of a kind" as vs. "home made", what's the difference if not advertising or a good artist's statement. http://www.artybollocks.com/

Our sword guys who make their own arts, usually based, if based on anything, on cutting practice are the hipsters of the budo world. They proclaim their own value based on the exclusivity of their invention, and they defend it on the functionality. I made this bag and it's as good as a Lagerfeld because it will carry a lipstick.

Again, nothing wrong with all that, if you can cut wet mats and get the thing in and out of the scabbard without taking your thumb off, you are probably as well off as our koryu fellow with the same experience. The functionality is the same, it's the perceived value that separates the two in the minds of the rest of the world.

So, what will all the non-initiated folk out there do when they decide they want a handbag? Chances are they will look around, maybe do a bit of research, find themselves at the local mall and choose the mass produced bag of known quality. Yes you can get a bag at the dollar store and yes it may be made in the same Chinese factory as the one in H&M but your chances of it not falling apart in a week are better at H&M. Our sword customer will probably find one of the big organizations and start off with Seitei Gata... or Kendo.

Kendo is the mass market chain of sword schools that owns the upscale iaido and jodo brands? The Tata to its Jaguar and Land Rover? Perhaps, you think about it and let me know.

*This is of course the origin of the term "Mad Scientist" but the economy needs consumerism to survive so the term has been manipulated to mean "all scientists are insane and their research that indicates our glucosamine pills don't help your knees is of no value".

August 13, 2013
Thoughts on Koryu

In the Japanese sword world that I inhabit the big thing is koryu, to get some training in an old school. But of course you have to have an old school around to join. It's a bit of a paradox really, what to do with the koryu. For those that have attached themselves to a large group of students to recruit from, for instance those iaido and jodo lines in the Kendo Federation, you get lots of students but little respect, at least in the West. While there's lots of lines and lots of students but it's all somehow "influenced". Yet for those koryu which are independent, they are also tiny, 10-12 students maybe, and constantly on the verge of extinction due to dying off, or to exploding from internal stresses.

It's really an old problem I suppose, you can't be exclusive and inclusive at the same time. There's no such thing as "secret techniques" if there's 3000 students.

But really, what is it that we're losing if a koryu disappears? Is there any real unique knowledge that is in danger of passing? There's only so many ways to hit someone with a stick, cut someone with a sword, or twist someone's wrist. If we lose the jujutsu from MJER does that mean some unique way of folding someone in half is gone? Other than that, if MJER exists only in the iai, but the "intangible" teachings are still carried on has anything actually been lost?

If a headmaster somewhere finds some old scrolls and revives the MJER jujutsu practices, is that OK or has something been lost because they weren't passed down person to person? It really comes down to what you personally think, doesn't it? If it's important to have an unbroken line, then it's important. Just don't look too closely or you may find your line has a bit of a bump in a coach-house somewhere on the road to Paris in 1643.

I think the bottom line is summed up by one "last survivor" of an old school who commented to me "if the Japanese can't be bothered to save their own heritage, why should I worry about it?"

I practice Niten Ichiryu. It's a koryu with some history and a lot of story. At any given time there may be 2 people in my dojo who are practicing or asking to practice. Not the sort of numbers that are realistically going to carry on the tradition, but thats not why I teach it. It is of great use to teach certain principles and attitudes that I have decided are important for my students to learn.

Evolution works, culturally as well as physiologically, and for anything to survive and thrive, it has to be of some value. Sentiment is a cultural value, and can preserve a lot of traditional ways, think "multicultural festival", but it is usually someone of the culture who's sentimental, or wishing to impart the tribal ways to the kids, or promote the "true spirit of the samurai" to the new generation of Japanese kids who will be in the new army after the constitution gets changed... Not someone from outside (ie us westerners who practice koryu). Realistically, for Westerners to want to preserve the koryu we have to have some reason other than saving Japan's heritage.

So why DO us westerners do it? 1. Romance, we wanna be samyoureyes... perhaps, but this is a shallow hobby, not a lifetime commitment and anyone who teaches the cosplay folks is inevitably dissappointed when they drift off. 2. We get something out of it... that something I've always argued, is culturally independant (if you had to be Japanese to get it, we wouldn't be getting it and so wouldn't be doing it).

Which comes down to "best teacher" rather than "coolest specific techniques". I'm assuming whatever we get, has to do with the method of training rather than the techniques since all koryu techniques are equally ineffective on a modern battlefield.

It has to be understood that I will eat just about anything put in front of me, I seem to look at food as fuel rather than as an aesthetic experience, but I will admit that there are certain meals I like better than others. Same with koryu, to be honest I prefer Niten Ichiru to Katori Shinto ryu, I like simple, I like short. I have some appreciation for the idea that certain arts are taught differently than others in some aspects, after all that's what makes them different in the first place. Katori has long kata, Niten has short, different teaching methods mean different koryu right?

I seem to be the "everything is the same" guy, I realize, but once again, I think the assumption behind the question is inaccurate. I don't think the training methods are different from one ryu to another, any more than I think that the root assumptions about how to move the body differ from one Japanese art to another. All are concerned with breathing, moving from the centre, dealing with (controlling, avoiding) the centreline, etc. etc.

The outside appearance, prayers used, and overall building decoration of the various Christian/buddhist/islamic shrines may differ, but at the core, it's the same basis for each one. The core teachings remain constant while the external trappings vary (and are often argued over to the point of religious wars within each religion).

So once again I propose that it doesn't really matter what colour the pews are, it matters more that the preacher can get the message across to you.

Empirically, every Japanese martial art I've ever practiced, koryu, gendai, or fake as hell, was passed along using the same training methodology. You copy kata until you start to understand the principles beneath the kata. All the instructors told/showed me the same things, and some of them seemed to actually understand those things.

For me it comes down to finding the best teacher and be damned with what he's teaching, so, in the West where we have maybe one teacher and two students for a koryu, what do we do?

If you're young, START WITH KENDO. No question about it. Simple reason why, you can start iaido or jodo later when you're an old fart...

If you stick around long enough you may find someone who does a koryu and then you can do that.

August 9, 2013

Seitei and Koryu

Why do we use Seitei as an introduction to Iaido when it contaminates the koryu?

This question comes up a lot, and so I'll go after it once more in the interests of teasing the lines apart just a bit more.

A beginner will do what he's first taught as a default mode, so if he's taught koryu first his seitei (of whatever flavour, ZNIR, ZNKR or any standard set from any other organization) will show a lot of koryu. If he's taught seitei first his koryu will show that by default until he can separate them. No big problem, just a fact of how one learns. How could it possibly be otherwise? You do what you were taught until you're taught otherwise. I know of no example of a line of koryu that was "seitei-ized" and no example where a seitei was "koryu-ized" to any meaningful extent.

If we're talking ZNKR and you're in the ZNKR I'd be happy to expound privately on comments about where seitei came from and the idea of seitei contaminating koryu. If you're not in the ZNKR the discussion is meaningless and pointless.

To those who can't figure out why one would do seitei if one does a koryu, the answer is equally simple. Because you're in the ZNKR or the ZNIR. No other reason makes any sense at all. If you're not in an organization that has a seitei set, you ought not be doing it (because there's no sense doing it if you don't have to do it... the LESS you do the better for you) and, more importantly, you don't have to discuss it or worry about it. It's not your problem is it?

Finally, Zen Ken Ren iai or Zen I Ren Iai as "starter kata". Are you kidding? Both these sets are extremely difficult to do, and a pain in the butt to teach beginners. Omori (Shoden) is designed to teach beginners in a consistant and sensible way using correct adult learning principles (building on acquired skills to create more advanced skills, repetition etc.) I repeat, Seitei is a monster to try to teach and to learn and the only reason it is taught first is that it's used as the basis of testing in the ZNKR so you start with it.

A seitei gata is "owned" by the organization that creates it and discussing its merits or faults when you're not a member of that organization is pointless... one would just as fruitfully discuss the merits of "pick koryu name and insert here" and its influence on some other koryu if one practices them together... or the influence of judo on aikido practice. Finally, if you ARE in an organization that has a seitei gata, and you're not at the top of that organization, you can certainly have your opinion on the value of the practice, but you aren't going to have any meaningful input unless you're debating with the top guys.

Put in a nutshell, beginners (and armchair punters I suppose) worry about contamination, seniors don't.

August 6, 2013

Rules and Riai

When we talk about riai (the principles behind the art) in iaido we generally talk about what the invisible opponent is doing (the meaning of/in the kata), and of course this is the first step. So how, being good students, do we figure out what's going on without having sensei take us by the hand and tell us?

With Seitei Gata this is a lot more easy than with most koryu. In Seitei we have the book which contains checkpoints of where the sword and body is at various times during the kata, and how we are to move between these points. From this we can figure out where our opponent is, and what he's doing.

Take Tsuka Ate, the instructions are to rise up onto our right foot from tate hiza, thrust the tsuka into the suigetsu of the opponent in front (slam the hilt into his solar plexus) and then draw to thrust back at the rear opponent before returning to cut down the one in front. So get a couple of fellow students and go to the end points of each strike. Thrust and have your friend put his suigetsu at that point, now relax as he moves in a couple of inches, that's him arranged, he sits down. Now thrust to the rear and have your second friend put his suigetsu on the tip of your bokuto. A couple of inches forward and he's set, everyone sit down. Now go through the kata slowly, in order to hit the front opponent at the correct height according to the book, he has to be upright and damned close, he collapses back onto his heel while you turn and thrust the fellow behind. (We know he collapses allowing you the space to draw because if he doesn't the final cut doesn't work.) And the fellow behind... oh, so he's got to be upright too, so he'd better be upright as you're hitting the front fellow which means he's.... grabbing your shoulders. So both of these guys are grabbing for you rather than trying to draw their swords, and it's only the final cut to the front fellow who has fallen backward that is a full sword technique as we usually think about it. Up to then it's what I call the jujutsu of sword, you're inside the range of the usual swing trying to shake off attackers who are grabbing at you while you draw and deal with them.

Let your buddies lay hands on you and then do the kata, see what that does to your posture and your use of the hip turn and all that other stuff sensei is always nagging you about. Does his instruction make a bit more sense now?

The riai of iaido has to start with figuring out what teki is doing because otherwise we are waving our blades in the air with no real feeling of what's happening.

As I mentioned, this is a bit more difficult when we're thinking about the riai of koryu as we don't usually get a book of rules. For koryu (and a more subtle appreciation of Seitei come to that) we have to understand the kihon of the art, when we put the sword at this angle and move it in this way what is it that we are doing? More plainly, if we draw and move the tip across horizontally what are we cutting? We all know that one, so now we know roughly what our opponent is doing and what our target is. Is he back on his heels or up at your height? Do we have to move in now or can we cut him vertically without moving?

All this understanding of what your opponent is doing gives your iaido more feeling, more presence. It gets your iaido to the level of a beginner in any of the arts of kenjutsu or jodo that work with partners... oops did I say that out loud?

Now you know why sensei keeps telling you to roll your eyeballs out of your head, look at teki and stop dancing. Only then can you start getting to the good stuff.

August 5, 2013

Rules and Intents

Recently a train full of what was supposed to be crude oil rolled down a hill in Quebec and blew up, killing several people. As a result someone is going to "look into the rules" surrounding the situation. I very much suspect we will see a change something like "If you are going to leave a train parked on a hill set some manual brakes" to "Set more manual brakes".

The problem is, rules don't ever work for everything, only for the last problem of the type we're trying to fix. What we really need to look at is the intent behind the rule. An engineer that reads the current rules on leaving a train on a hill might just follow them exactly and still have a train roll down the hill. The intent behind whatever rule exists is something like "if you leave a train parked on a hill make sure you set enough brakes so that it doesn't go anywhere." Now if you look at it like that it seems blazingly obvious, but that sort of thing takes time and maybe the bosses who make the rules don't want to pay you to take that time, maybe they figure their rules are good enough...

OK that's a rather unfortunate story to get into my point, but it's the one that prompted my thoughts on iaido, specifically on zen ken ren iai (seitei) and koryu.

Seitei iai is chock full of rules, what isn't in the book is made up and shared and assumed to be "rules" anyway. There's nothing that we don't "rulify" about it. For instance, the book says "the tip (kissaki) should be above the hilt (tsuka) when the sword is over your head just ready to cut (furi kaburi)" Over the years we've extended that rule to say "the tip never drops below the hilt" which was of course always nonsense because there are places where the book says it does. In any case, the big wigs have spent the last several years going around the world trying to get us to stop performing awkward and inefficient movements to try and keep that tip up while moving from a thrust into another movement (pull it out keeping the tip up, now move it back and then lift it over the head always keeping the tip up... oops took too long trying to keep the tip up and my opponent just smacked me.

Seitei gata (standardized forms) are a very nice thing for a large organization to have. They allow lots of people to practice and "talk" together with a common language which can also be used to assess levels of skill and all that good stuff. But too many rules can create a legalistic view of life, where the rules become more important than the intent.

Just now outside the window of the cafe where I'm writing this I watched four people in a truck pull up to the light beside a bicyclist. The biker was going straight, the truck turning right. You guessed it, the light changed and both vehicles started to move.
The truck had to stop after damned near hitting the bike. Now I am watching as the guys in the truck are throwing up their hands in a WTF gesture at the "stupid biker".

OK rules. You don't pass on the right at an intersection (or anywhere else actually). So the worst happens and the biker is dead on the ground. The driver of the truck is not at fault because the biker broke the rules. OH, wait, the truck pulled up past the biker so now the truck passed on the left and turned right into the biker so now the biker is OK (legally) and the truck driver is at fault.

PLEASE. No matter what happens the truck driver, as the guy in control of the bigger weapon, is at fault no matter what. The biker has no chance no matter what rules he follows, right or wrong and a life is at stake. The INTENT of the rules are to prevent loss of life. Only a lawyer of the particularly legalistic bent (or being paid I suppose) would argue this case on the rules of the road for the truck driver. Am I saying the biker was in his rights to ignore the truck? Sure he was but rights have little to do with life in this case.

Union negotiator here for a couple of contracts. If you've been there you know the legalism that goes on when either side gets hold of some language in the contract that is ambiguous. It doesn't matter what the original intent was, if you can twist the language to your advantage you do it.

A couple cents an hour in salary gained or lost isn't life and death. Trucks and bicycles, trains and towns are. This is why we should not consider iaido as cosplay or even as a sport, if we do it doesn't have much to teach us. We need to consider iai as life and death, as something that needs to be thought about seriously. There is no second round in the tournament in a real sword fight, no round robin, no loser's side of the score sheet, only bleeding out on the ground. If we think this way we may start paying attention when riding on our bike in traffic... those people in metal armour all around us can grind us to a smear on the pavement and all we've got is a pocket knife to their howitzers. Consequences of actions, predicting the future, if I make three moves just to keep the tip up so that I am following some sort of rule, I lose my life. If I play grand theft Otto I don't have any hesitation crashing my car into the pedestrians and the wall, I get another life. No consequences. I want to see a video game where if you die, the game erases itself and you don't get to buy it to play it ever again. Call it "LIFE" or "biking on the road".

If you want to get something beyond your next rank out of Seitei Gata iai, look for the intent behind the rules. You've got the book, you've got videos, you can work at it by yourself, figure out what the rules mean instead of memorizing and dancing them.

August 4, 2013

Time to Start Teaching

When you know more than your sensei it's time to start teaching.

That seems obvious to me, but of course it's hard to tell when you know more than your sensei isn't it? If it's kendo or some other competitive sport you may start to whack your teacher once in a while when he's not just letting you do it... but that may be because he's an old fart rather than because you now know more than him. It would be a shame to go teach if you haven't wrung him completely dry... yes I just suggested that your teacher is an old mostly used-up and wrung out sponge. Trust me, the metaphore is often accurate.

So what else can we use to know when we need to leave? Let me tell you about a few of the dojo I've come across in my journey. One of the first situations was a club that one of my early teachers had somewhere else. This one was full of high ranked students, hardly a beginner around. Everyone had been together for ten or fifteen years and it was just like a family full of teenagers, full of rebellion and opinion with no "kids" around to mellow anyone out. I think the sensei was teaching us because we were little fresh sponges, ready to be filled up, much more fun than the "full of piss and vinager" (as my gran used to say) bunch in the other place. The end result was that sensei left the dojo to the students. Now I didn't think that was a good idea then and I don't now. Sensei should have booted the most senior folks out one by one to start their own clubs "promoted them sideways" as it were, which would have made a stronger art and relieved some of the pressures in the dojo.

First way to know you should go teach... sensei boots your ass out the door and says you know more than him, go teach.

The club I started my budo career in was started by a lovely fellow who had a middling rank. a desire to keep practicing, and a town with no instructor. He started teaching because there was nobody else to do it, and he brought his teacher in once a week.

Likely the most usual way any of us started to teach... so we'd have someone to practice with. We know more than our students at least, and if we can bring sensei in once in a while we may even keep learning.

Funny thing is, I was apparently one of those obnoxious students I am talking about who knows more than his teacher. At one point this lovely fellow was going to quit. All the other seniors said they would quit too, me, I said "the art is bigger than my personal feelings so I'll stay" which is so pompous and self-important I can't believe I didn't know it then. Well it turns out that's not all I didn't know since my teacher was going to quit because I was a pain in his ass. Somehow it worked out but don't think I don't know the short-sightedness "a little knowledge" can cause.

The art is still bigger than I am, but for different reasons these days I hope. Mind you, I'm still a pompous windbag with a gigantic self-image, just not as many (the same?) illusions.

One of the clubs here in town had a fellow who liked his rank, and liked as much of it as he could get, so he would, each few years, leave one organization (and sensei) and join another where he would get another rank. He made it to a pretty high number before he finally quit trying to make a go of it as a commercial dojo. I don't know much about his students but I'm pretty sure they weren't too fussed about leaving him since he wasn't fussed about leaving his own teachers.

Leave and teach because that's the easiest way to get rank. You know other ways to do this don't you, the old "airport promotion" where you get on the plane from the mysterious orient as a shodan and you arrive as a godan (well, they rhyme, maybe you misheard). Or the fellow who phones back home and says "hey teach, they don't respect a sandan around here, I need a hachidan to get respect how about it?"

OK not really "when to leave to start teaching" but more "start teaching to get some rank".

How about you know you know more than sensei when you find yourself telling other students how other teachers do this or that technique? What's that say except "time to leave" since you obviously can teach yourself now with your multiple sensei, so you may as well be out there on your own passing on your broad knowledge.

Note the word broad, it's not the same as deep.

Or maybe you realize that you have already left your sensei even though your ass is still on the same dojo floor. This is the dojo where the students have "our sensei in the home country" which the students are always quoting to their local sensei. The idea is that the students have some sort of access to sensei's superior so they've jumped up the heirarchy and can now tell sensei how to do things. If that isn't a hint to go out and teach I have never heard one. You've just put yourself on the same level as sensei because you both have the same boss. Staying with the original teacher is just lazy, be a man and go get your own students in your own dojo, I'm sure that upper level sensei will support you since he hasn't smacked your nose with a rolled up newspaper and told you to go back to your old sensei and leave him alone.

You know, I don't really mind any of this nonsense from my students, and I know of few sensei who do, but it isn't very good for the students. The know-it-mores tend to give up the art (after all what's left to learn) or go and open their own dojo, often without asking permission, so the problem solves itself. Sometimes though, I wish some of my fellow teachers would just tell these guys to "get a life" and go teach somewhere else. Not my place to say of course, but as a "blogger" I got a right don't I?

For those who just don't know how to do things properly, here are a few thoughts.

You've only got one sensei. I don't care how many people you go stand in front of, or whose books you read, you've only got one sensei and everything goes through him. If he says go practice with another guy, go do it, but don't come back and tell everyone what you learned, show it to your sensei and then go back to how sensei told you to do it. If he decides the other guy gave you a better way to do things, your sensei will tell you. You don't get to decide.

You don't talk about any other teacher in front of any teacher. Your various teachers all know each other and have practiced, watched or talked together. What makes you think you have anything to contribute? Just do what you're told to do by the guy up front and check back with your sensei later.

If you don't like what dad is doing, get a job and an apartment. Seriously, why would you stay in a dojo if you don't agree with how sensei is teaching? And why in the world would you try to change the way he does things? I've got a couple of teenagers at home and I'm happy to listen to them since they know more than I do, but I'm paying the mortguage so I get the last word, right or wrong.

Defend your sensei. If you don't want to defend him when other sensei are telling you he's wrong, think very carefully about whether or not he's your sensei. I'm not talking about blind loyalty, nobody is owed that, any more than "my country right or wrong" is a healthy attitude, but if you don't want to at least go calmly quiet when he's being slagged, you probably agree that it's a mistake to be his student. Move in with the other guy or go teach on your own, don't be an enabler of your sensei's bad habits.

Incidentally, when you do go out and teach have the following things in mind.

Say "ask your sensei" a lot. My personal inclination is to teach anyone who is standing in front of me (I assume they have asked permission to be there) but I'm damned if I'm going to suggest that a sensei is wrong about anything except what I'm supposed to be the authority on. I'm speaking about seitei gata iaido and jodo here just to be clear, I'm one of the senior judges so I will say "that's wrong" if it's written in the book. On things that are allowed to be in flux my answer is "ask your sensei". Mind you, I'm also not going to waste a lot of time comparing what I do to what your sensei does, I'm going to show you my art and you are going to listen and then do what your sensei tells you to do. He sent you for a reason, it's your job to figure that out for yourself.

Do not comment on other sensei either in or out of the room. I have heard of one situation where some senior sensei asked another sensei whether or not the guy up in front was doing it right. Seriously? The guy up front was asked to teach so shut up and listen. You can either do what he says or not later, but while he's there shut up and do it his way.

Oh those lovely lost days at seminars when I was younger and the senior students would look briefly at what the sensei was showing, assume they knew what was happening, and then turn around and tell me how to do something else altogether. Yes I paid attention to what the guy up front was saying and yes I did whatever my seniors ended up telling me to do but I never lost sight of who I was actually there to see. Any sensei in a room who tells me different from what's being taught goes right into that gang of "seniors" from my youth who couldn't be bothered to think there might be something else to learn.

When do you know when you are ready to go teach? When you finally decide you never want to teach, when all you want to do is wring out that used up old sponge until there's not a drop left to fall out.

When do you go teach? When your ass has been booted out the door (or you can't get there from here and sensei says "teach").

August 2, 2013

Favourite Seminar

This last weekend in Ottawa was one of my favourite seminars. This year was the 15th anniversary of the Tateyama kendo, iaido and jodo club and I'm glad to have been invited. The club, under the direction of Dave Green (6dan iaido), hosted 20 or 25 students and all three 7dan iaido sensei from the east, which means I got to go hang out with my two seniors and what was, in my opinion, just the right amount of students. We started out with a morning of iaido, Ohmi sensei demonstrating kihon to most of the class with Cruise sensei taking care of the beginners. I just hung around and listened to my sensei. Later we split into three groups and I tried to explain differences in skill and instruction to a group ranging from nidan to godan. Splitting them at 3dan I tried to demonstrate that for a nidan you might talk about squaring up the feet and keeping the hip facing forward, while for a 5dan you can expand into how to work inside the hip to generate power in the back foot. I got a good question on the rear foot turning over in ushiro which let me show why beginners should flip the toes under and why instructors should leave the foot rolling explanations to a word in the shell-like of the more advanced.

In the afternoon we started with a combined class of all three arts with Mike Arai sensei (Ottawa kendo instructor) teaching kendo bokuto kihon with the assistance of senior kendoka from Kingston and Ottawa. Personally, I love that set like I love all kihon, and I hope the iaido and jodo students got as much out of it as I did. We then split into a jodo and kendo group with lots of new folks being forced to flounder through the jodo kihon and first few kata all in two hours. If that doesn't convince them to stay out of jodo they're a tough bunch of beginners. (Actually, they picked it up pretty fast.)

Sunday morning classes began with a couple hours of kendo (I had a nice long breakfast) followed by a couple hours of iaido during which Ohmi sensei pulled many students forward and gave them their homework for the next year or so. His ability to zero in on what they need to do next to improve is quite impressive and so much deeper than the usual nattering about how you have to hit this or that checkpoint. While I suspect some folks were hearing "this is what you do wrong" I hope most understand that sensei's comments are "how to go forward" and work hard before they forget the instructions.

Thanks to the Tateyama club in Ottawa for the organization and hosting. I hope that all the beginners find one of the clubs in Ottawa and keep up their studies (both Ottawa clubs, Tateyama and Takahashi, practice kendo, iaido and jodo).

July 15, 2013

My Kid Could Wave a Sword Around Like That

When people look at fine art it's the story that gives it value, not the intrinsic properties of colour, composition and brushwork. For a painting to be valuable it has to have provenance, it has to be valued by other people (collectors or critics) and it helps if it's hand made (as opposed to remotely created by computer or apprentice).

If you doubt this, look at the relative value of a genuine Vermeer as vs a forgery good enough to fool the experts.

Think of this in terms of your budo practice. A genuine school, with a proven lineage is going to be more valued than the stuff made up by the guy three streets over, even if students of the two schools are equally likely to win a fight. We will create (assume) some sort of essential difference between the two of them and will call one real and one fraud. The intrinsic combat value of both may be similar but the stories are vastly different. To explain these differences we may posit some sort of esoteric teachings in the old school, and assume there are none in the new. But that's not a given, the teacher of the "old school" may know nothing of secret inner teachings, while the new fellow may have a perfectly good working principle for his new art, one every bit as sophisticated as the mysterious diagrams of the italian sword schools or the shinto practices of a Japanese koryu.

We may assume the old school is "battle tested", born and forged in the fires of war, but of course a bit of historical research will point out that most schools originated in peacetime when folks had the leisure time to spend formalizing and categorizing complicated movements. The battlefield is no place for fancy footwork and pretty manners, just get the job done fast. If you're talking efficiency in war an "old school" is almost by definition obsolete. How many times do the military historians have to remind us that we can't fight the last war. You know, the guy three streets over may have a budo that is better adapted to a world where dangerously religious people are walking around with high-powered firearms. A modern budo might better be teaching quick-draw gunfighting rather than how to deal with a samurai in armour.

The old school simply has a better story and a long history which we assume means it has value. After all, if it has survived for many generations it must have been valued enough in the past to preserve it. It's very age is proof of worth.

If a painting is admired by lots of people around us, we tend to agree. Same with critics who tell us it's good. Think celebrity endorsement for running shoes, you don't pay Michael that much to flog your shoes if it doesn't work. Same for budo, the one with the press, the one with the stories in the mags and the TV deal is the one with worth. For the old schools there are guys like me yammering away on the internet.

So, think of abstract expressionism and all those folks who looked at it and said "my kid could do that". Thing is, that kid doesn't have critics and art galleries explaining it in terms of art history and telling folks it's good stuff worth buying. The kid's got no story. What's your story? Are you in it because you want to paint (or because you really like that painting by an unknown you just discovered), because you find some value in creating your budo, or did you buy (into) it because you like the story?

Nothing wrong with the story, it's a function of our brains, and it's damned handy to be able to do the group-think stuff when the tigers are sniffing around, but it's best to know we're set up that way so that we don't end up with a closet full of shoes.

July 11, 2013

Samurai vs SUV

Yesterday at the seminar we were talking riai and the various stages of such a thing during the ages from 1600 to 2013, and during the years of a swordsman's training.

Your Riai:

When you begin your iaido you are told to move your foot here and do this with the sword. There's no particular meaning to your motions, you just do them because you're told to do them. After a while you might ask, or sensei may offer the information that there's someone sitting in front of you and you're cutting their face and then splitting them in half. As Dave Green says, you now have the reason (you're learning how to swing the sword) and the excuse (your imaginary enemy wants to hurt you so you hurt him). It's self defence, "he drew first Marshal". If you're good, if your reflexes are on a hair trigger and you're faster, you win, if not, at least you both die (ai uchi or mutually assured destruction).

A bit later you may get out the bokuto with a partner and realize that your imaginary enemy is not so much attacking you as just sitting there, so now you have to figure out why you are cutting down someone who hasn't even got his sword out of the scabbard. (He had a gun in his pocket and wasn't happy to see you?) The three timings of sen sen no sen, sen no sen and go no sen are introduced and now you're killing someone because they intend to do you harm. At a certain stage of training that makes sense, hell even governments use that one with the principle of "preemptive self defence" (at a distance). I think this is the one where gamer boys in Nevada drop missiles from drones on bad guys in central asia or some such thing.

Long after it seems important to look cool with the samurai duds, those who are still practicing iai may be getting something a bit deeper out of their hobby, after all, as my TKD instructor used to say, "nobody does this for 10 years on the off chance they're going to get into a bar fight". What do the long-timers understand? Well they may discover saya no uchi no kachi, or the concept of winning in the scabbard, of not being killed, not killing the opponent, not both being killed, but both living. The riai of iaido may change the way you do things, with the most important part of the practice shifting from the cuts to the draw, or even to the opening bow as you use the implied power of the sword and your skill with it to prevent the opponent from even considering an attack. At first glance it looks like we have discovered peace through power, nobody would attack you if you have the ability to bomb them into the stone age would they? Show them that pair of swords in your belt and they will stay respectful and quiet on the other side of the inn.

Or perhaps it's more about being prepared, having no openings for an attack. That would, of course, require complete knowledge of everything, you can't be prepared for everything that could happen if you don't know about everything, so you work on everything. With complete information you can make plans that won't have unknown-unknowns. If only we had some way to gather that kind of information and analyse it, some sort of remote data collecting method so that we know what all our potential enemies are planning, and who they might be, come to that. If only.

Instead of a single defined "riai", I seem to have discovered a shifting set of meanings in my iaido over the past 30 years. The stuff my teachers told me has changed, so it's not really just me inventing stuff. In fact the things I've been told to teach about the meaning of iai to beginners is different than what I'm supposed to tell the more advanced folk.

Riai through the years:

That's as far as I've been taught, but I'm pretty sure there's more to come. Not to invent my own spoilers, but I think there's a clue to be had on the open road. After all, what's that giant SUV but the nuclear option of the personal transportation vehicle? So what can an SUV teach me about the sword?

Think about your 1650 samurai learning his sword school and think about maai, the mutual combat distance of the day. That would, on your usual city street, be about two sword lengths. We all know this right, the distance of one step to the cut is the combative distance, one beat as the western folks say. Go through that distance and you're in the fight, someone is bleeding on the ground.

Now consider the maai as that distance which makes you nervous, the spot where the inside of your eyelid starts to vibrate as you want to close your eyes against the bogey-man. When I've got a bokuto in my hand that's about two sword lengths. If I have a shoto in my hand, or maybe nothing at all, the distance gets a little wider, yet I have to get a little closer in order to make a strike with my shorter weapon. If my opponent is much less skilled than me, the distance where I'm comfortable gets a little smaller. If it's a complete beginner, it widens out again. Give my opponent a shinken and it gets wider yet.

Maai isn't a distance, it's the combination of distance and time, speed and reflex and perception. Samurai vs samurai, there are the swords, there is the distance. Samurai vs SUV? Consider the meaning of a sword hobby become something more. What can it teach you, what meaning can it have beyond the obvious stuff we talked about above. Consider a vehicle as a tool which can cause death and destruction, consider an SUV as a weapon. What does your sword practice teach you about the maai of driving? Oh obvious boy you say, this is simplistic. OK perhaps, but I would ask you to consider how you learned to drive, was it in an SUV? In a vehicle that is silent, distant from the wind? Was it in something that looks like your x-box screen? Like the game screens the boys use to drive the drones? What's your comfort level at 140 km/h? Consider if you had learned your maai in a dune buggy? Think about driving down a 4-lane highway with nothing between you and the wind, nothing between you and the transport beside you, the road flashing past under your feet.

Learning something about dangerous distances with bokuto or jo might just apply, given enough time and thought, to driving in your SUV four feet from the bumper in front of you while eating your breakfast and texting.

Our samurai from 1650, for all his "throw your life away" training would probably wet his hakama if we took him onto a modern superhighway and drove like we usually drive.

The meaning of his sword art may not be the same as our meaning of our sword art.

July 8, 2013


Waiting for coffee, and heading for the computer store so I can buy a new desktop. A month of almost zero connection, followed by strange and weird error messages has convinced me that after ten years it's time to jump over three operating systems and upgrade a computer once more. I went from DOS to 95 to XP and now 8 I guess, doubt there's any 7 systems around. Of course I'd be using Linux if I had my 'druthers but I'm set up for a few windows programs that I use to create the webpages.

Oh yeah, the four hosting plans that I ended up with over the years are supposed to be getting consolidated to save us a few dollars a month but ... did I mention the crap connectivity.

I've had similar problems with the martial arts through the years, one injury leading into another and another, one problem compounding onto others so that I often wonder why I do it. Why do I put out a monthly photo magazine (180mag.ca) that earns me nothing and irritates me as I try to find the time to produce it? Why do I keep working on EJMAS.com? I'm pretty much the sole editor and producer these days... well OK that one is the main source of advertising for my business ( sdksupplies.com ) so I'm good with that but I could spend more time on it.

Why keep doing the martial arts through all the little gremlin times, and after 30 years? Well one answer is that it eventually turns from "what you do" to "who you are", but the other is that I actually am still learning stuff that makes me happy. To be able to tell a student from across the room that the shoulder is a bit too angled, and then to be able to demonstrate that for them is actually a lot of fun. Again, I'll never really have a use for that sort of thing, but it's worth waiting out the gremlins and upgrading old equipment (I upgraded the knees by a couple of tonnes of weight last night and sure paid for it around 3am with the shooting pains in the kneecap) just to keep figuring stuff out.

Upgraded the bluetooth keyboard I use to write this stuff on my tablet each morning. Went from a double fold to a single when the old one ripped some connection skin. Really like this one as it doesn't double tap but the right shift key is the up arrow instead. Not so much a gremlin as yet another keyboard to get used to I guess.

Learn from the gremlins, use the problems to explore the systems that are affected (and learn from the nice grad student who drops his thesis work for an afternoon and an evening to help). If you learn absolutely nothing else, you'll learn a bit of patience as you wait the little beggers out. Ah the William Shatner episode with him on a plane and the gremlin on the wing... I saw that on a black and white TV with an arial that turned by a hatchet handle bolted onto a pipe by my gramps.

July 4, 2013

Another Country Heard From

About once a year (around grading time when our attention is drawn to it) the upper levels of the iaido section wonder what we're doing in our organization. The discussion is usually the same each time, we start with why and end up with "because we want access to our sensei". It has always been that easy for me, as long as my sensei wants a sensei I'll do what I need to do to get him one.

What's this? Sensei have sensei? Can you have more than one sensei, is that word plural? Yes, you can have more than one sensei, and I hear it all the time from students around here, "my Japanese sensei says... " Nothing wrong with that, I can't imagine how much less I would know if I hadn't had the chance to study with many high ranked sensei who were all teaching the same thing. The different points of view are like walking around a statue, you get the depth of the thing, the three dimentionality, and you get the proper shape of the thing. The arts are like an elephant and a sensei is like one of the three blind men, each with his own way of describing the animal. Combine the views and you come up with a more complete picture that doesn't have as much exaggeration of one aspect.

But who guides all this? What does the student do when one sensei says do it this way and another says do it that? The answer is quite simple actually, ask shisho. Shisho is your sensei, YOUR sensei, no a sensei, not one of many, but the one you follow. This is what concerns me when I hear students saying "my Japanese sensei says we should do....". Unless a student is certain they are smarter than all the sensei out there they shouldn't be saying "my this or that sensei" at all, they should be having a quiet talk with their shisho and asking what they should do, then they should do that. Never pick and choose amongst many, rather do what your shisho tells you.

Usually a student doesn't get the chance to pick and choose between sensei, you find one and you follow. But in a large organization with a common practice like the Kendo Federations, you can stand in front of many sensei. You can even, for a few years, pick and choose from all of them and make your own decisions on how to do the waza, but at around 4dan comes a big decision. You can't cobble a style together from a bunch of different sensei, you have to pick one and start to follow your shisho.

Now, once you've done this for a decade or three you can start investigating once more amongst the other sensei out there and see what you can learn about the deep roots of the art, but your style, your basis for understanding will be set by your shisho. You can visit other countries and learn lots, but you're learning about your own home-country culture, you'll never become a native of some other place.

So, I stick around in the Kendo Federations (all of which are a lot more concerned with kendo than iaido or jodo by sheer weight of numbers if nothing else) because my shisho wants to learn from the sensei in the federation. I don't need these other sensei but I also enjoy the blazes out of seeing them. All I really need is my shisho.

How does it actually go around here? The beginners all want to see lots of sensei, especially those from Japan so they vote "stick with the Federation". The intermediate ranks, who have picked their shisho, can't see much value in an organization beyond their dojo. The guys at the top, the ones who are the shisho, want to do their best for their students, so they want to stay in touch with the art as much as possible, and so we stay.

July 2, 2013

Responsibility Goes Both Ways

I hear so much about the responsibility of students to listen, have faith, follow, support and generally obey their teachers. What I don't hear so much is what the teachers owe the students. In fact, from some quarters you'd figure that teachers owe nothing at all to their students who should feel damned lucky to be allowed to sit in front of sensei and bask in any tidbits of knowledge they wish to toss out.

Over and over I see gradings that are changed at the last minute, rules that are applied and adjusted at a whim and the only way that could happen is if the guys at the top (I include myself in that crowd in my little pond) figure they have a divine right to rule. What we've got is time in and a bit more experience. Unfortunately for our own moral fabric we aren't elected to these positions of power in the teaching heirarchy (and usually not on the administrative side of things either, but that's another story). Being unelected it's easy to assume we're above considering the wishes of those "below", they didn't put us there and they can't remove us eh?

Except that they can remove themselves, they can vote with their feet and what's a teacher without students?

If it only worked that way for everyone. It's Canada Day (or as I will always call it, Dominion Day) and I just read a newspaper article about a US Marine Corps flag detail who carried the Canadian flag at a World Series game in Toronto. I don't care about the Marines, Baseball, the flag (I liked the old one), Patriotism, or Toronto (that's another story going back to 1837), but I found myself at age 57 getting all choked up. I remember that at age 18 I wanted something to belong to, something to folllow, a cause to work and maybe die for. In other words, I was a pretty normal young guy. At that time my feelings got focused on the martial arts which provided me with the place to exercise my loyalty muscles. I ran across some mildly abusive instructors that I did nothing about (my Gran was nastier than any of my teachers) but I saw a lot more who could have used a visit from the police, whose students still stuck with them. These teachers figured that they were "good to go" since their students didn't leave.

Self-deluded ego-monsters is what they were/are. The thing that will stop this is not the loss of students (that misplaced loyalty will make many stay) or the law (although in the more extreme cases that certainly works) but teachers who recognize that they are nothing special with no super powers beyond knowing the art they are teaching. What will stop the abuse of trusting students who want very much to devote themselves to the art is for their teachers to remember that it's the art and not the man. The man up front has a responsibility to make sure the students fixate on the art and not the artist. Teach what you should, treat the students as adults worthy of their own opinions, respect their rights to fair treatment at gradings, be professional and keep the personal feelings and failings out of it. Give them more respect than they give to you, and always remember that respect is earned and not owed.

July 1, 2013