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This is me

Nicely edited shot from somewhere on my drive.


Processing Or to Create Jewelry

I have a problem explaining my photography to people. At times I will arrange to shoot two or three times a week and generate hundreds of images but I almost never use them. I'll have even less use for them now that I have handed over the magazine to another fellow but the images were never the point. There are thousands of images being created every hour and all photographers have always created more than they've ever used, what's the use of creating more?

No the point isn't the image, it's the process of looking and shooting, it's the making real what only existed in the eye a moment before that is the purpose of photography.

Painters too, except for a short period after the rise of the middle class and before the invention of photography when they could make a living at it, paint largely to create images for the sake of the creation, and not to make objects for some sort of use. Today most paintings never see the wall of the gallery or the trunk of a buyer's car, yet paint and canvas keeps getting sold.

Creation of something from the head into the real world is perhaps the definition of art.

Craft might then be called the making of something from a prior pattern, the production of a useful object from a design. The process is the same but the end result is practical, often pre-sold as a commissioned object, or of a type of object that can be sold. The middle class portrait painting, the wedding photographs, the sports shot for the morning papers are all craft.

I make wooden weapons, a lot of them. Almost all the time I'm working I am being a craftsman, making a custom bokuto or producing a standard model that we sell. When I'm doing this I don't consider myself to be an artist, I'm earning a living and I work at it out of duty rather than curiosity. Yet at the same time I am producing my standard weapon I might also be creating a fantasy war-club or making a cane from bits and pieces. Then perhaps I'm a craftsman when I pick up one piece and with the very next, an artist. The laminated swords that I make might be a mixture of both modes, they are whimsy, chance, and not made solely to be sold. I don't make them on commission, I make them for my own amusement, to, as Gary Winogrand said about his photography, "see what something looks like photographed".

Yet the process is identical no matter what wooden sword or cane or club I am creating. It is a creation of something from my mind through my hands to the real world.

Same as the photography. The process comes from mind to reality through my physical effort, even if I'm shooting a catalogue for a business at $1200 a day.

The writing I'm doing now? It's not ego driven, except that I have to believe I have something to say or I won't be able to write. Yet I don't do it to be famous or to persuade or to educate. I do it to find out what I'm going to say. It's a process of creating an argument from head to... pixels I suppose, I rarely put pen to paper these days, although that gives me as much pleasure. During this process I get to see what my thoughts look like written down. What gets written is offered up like my photographs and my canes. I'll happily sell those but don't create them for sale. They are created by the artist. The sales items by the craftsman.

What about the martial arts? I perform an iaido kata to see what it feels like when I'm being an artist. When I'm being a craftsman I suppose I'm doing a kata to teach, or to win a rank. I teach aikido because I'm asked to do so when I'm being a craftsman, but I teach so that I can make real in the physical world the movements I dream about at night, and that move through my body at odd times during the day.

All these things of the artist are identical, they are all the process of creating in the world what existed only in my head. The process is also used when I'm being a craftsman, the same process, but the result is something requested, a wooden sword, a jodo lesson.

No matter what I'm doing, when the process is engaged I am being present in the world, I am creating my presence in the world which is, for those who have studied these things, one of the key methods of self-improvement. The process is the opposite of the distraction of faceplant tweets and anime binges, the consumption of stuff. Yet the consumption of the world is necessary to creation. You must learn a Niten Ichiryu kata before you can perform it. What you learn from photographs of other people's food is somewhat mysterious to me but perhaps it gives an appreciation of just how much work it takes to create a good advertising food shot.

June 29, 2014

This is not a pipe

Le Corbusier prints an illustration of a pipe and labels it "a pipe". Magritte paints a pipe and labels it "this is not a pipe". If you haven't seen this painting your art history class was a bust.

In order to fully understand Magritte's statement you should know what it is responding to, everything is call and response. There are no artworks that arise out of a void, despite what their makers may say.

Even Musashi's Niten Ichiryu, those five kata for two swords that seemed to arise from nowhere did not. Parenthetically, for those who are about to say they came from Katori Shinto Ryu, please read Musashi's comments on that school in his book. We don't know where those kata came from, but we do know, a little, where Musashi learned how to swing a sword, and that will be the root of his school. The early instruction and the later investigation results in the final work.

So we move to iaido, as we often do, and we now perform a kata saying in our minds "this is not iaido". A surrealist statement? Not at all, a comment on the confusion that happens when the image is mistaken for the object, the illustration for the pipe, the performance for real life. The first glance at Magritte's painting tells us this. But the deeper investigation, the extension of our question from "what is this?" to "what does this mean" is also necessary.

The very surface of an iaido kata, let's call it Mae in Seitei Gata, tells us a story, you cut across the face and down to finish the opponent, you shake off the blood and put the sword away. Pretty simple story and when you perform the motions you might say you were "doing iaido". Your teacher then says "grading coming up" and starts reading you the book and telling you the latest timing from Tokyo. You work on precise angles and arrange your uniform just so and get out a stopwatch to time your etiquette. Now, you say, "this must be the real iaido, after all I am receiving a rank for this performance".

But, says a small analytical voice in your head, are you doing iaido or are you grading? Is this performance "iaido" or "rank", or is it just an illustration of iaido, a painting of rank?

Look deeper, look back through the chain of statement and response that is human understanding. Seitei came from old schools of iaido. Seitei is a standardized form of the koryu, it is not something newly burst from the brows of the original committee like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. (Even Athena came from somewhere, from the ingestion of Metis by that big-mouth Zeus). The committee took what they knew and agreed on a common performance. From the Mae, the Shohatto of the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu lineage came the Mae of Seitei. And in that standardization was created what is most distinctive, most important in the new kata, the standardization. From now on everyone will paint a pipe as Magritte painted a pipe.

So we have found our image and found where it came from and now we can say that Mae is not a pipe, not "iaido" by comparison to Magritte's treacherous image. Does that mean that the koryu from which the Seitei Mae was painted are the real iaido? Which koryu? Each line of instruction has its own standard of performance handed down from master to apprentice. Are these any less a treacherous image of the real thing? Where then is the real thing? What is the real thing. Must we go back further than the koryu? Is that possible?

Perhaps we ought to ask a different question, perhaps we ought to ask the painters, the makers of the images, the creators of the performances what it is they are modeling. Perhaps we ought to read what the old teachers are saying to us in that other treacherous image, the written word. What is it that the old sensei tell us about iaido? That it is an exact performance of precise angles and tick tock timing? Some sometimes certainly, but not always and not at the core of their instruction. Iaido is something other than the performance of Seitei Mae, and hints may be had from the koryu, from the teachers within those koryu traditions (they still exist) from the writings of those teachers who died before Seitei Iai (those writings still exist) and from the intuition of long-time students of the art. Yes, your intuition is of some value, despite what your teachers may tell you.

Your intuition at seeing Magritte's pipe may be to say "sure it's a pipe". Were you wrong? Seeing Magritte's painting, showing it to someone who has never seen a pipe, could you expect them to recognize that object should they ever actually have one in their mouth? It may not be a pipe but that image can point to a pipe. The finger pointing to the moon.

So what can you learn from Seitei Mae? What does it point to? Our first understanding says that we cut an opponent across the eyes or the forehead (I forget which, despite being told not a month ago). Perhaps you have been told "intuiting the intention of our opponent, we strike first". So what have we learned? The Japanese art of the sneak attack? Pearl Harbour? The ultimate lesson being that you'd better hope that this time the giant truely continues to sleep? (Insert vertical cut here).

References, lots of obscure references, are you getting them all? You must find those obscure references, perhaps find the one that describes nuki tsuke and the meaning of jo ha kyu in this precise movement of Mae.

To cut your opponent across the face before he can begin to draw. "This is not iaido".

June 28, 2014

The Value of Mess

Without the darkness there can be no light, or maybe nature abhors a vacuum?

I cleaned off my memory card in my camera and when I reformatted it to see that I had 2854 more photos to take I had a great urge to go out and photograph something.

I cleaned up a large pile of rippings under my shop bench and swept the floor which caused me to make a dozen or more ash bo (at 1.25 inches by six feet of both octagonal and round variety by the way, if anyone wants to take them off my hands, the fellow they were made for has dropped off the grid). I also got into another corner of the shop and glued up and made a bunch of walking sticks, something I love doing even though there's no market for them.

Thing is, when the mess is sitting there for years I have no desire, really to do anything with it, but clean up that space (finally) and I seem to have a great desire to start working which will produce the stuff to make the mess again.

The teacher once poured tea for the student, he poured and poured until the student had to shout stop as the cup was overflowing. The teacher said "you are like the full cup, there's no room for anything more". I feel that way quite a lot, the old head is full of mess and it takes something like a good cleanup of the old images and the old piles of scrap to get room for some new stuff.

Students who say "I know" tend to be like the mess in the corner to me, it's fine, it's full, leave it alone. Trying to teach a student who has all the answers is like pouring more tea in a full cup, a waste of everyone's time. It's no good trying to tell the full cup that there's room for more, there isn't. Best to just empty it out.

Now emptying a student of all their "knowledge" isn't as easy as it once was, used to be that I could say "oh yes?" and throw them across the room to land in a heap. Now they're younger and stronger and a lot more bouncy and if they've been around for a while they know all my little tricks so I have to be content to peck away at the corners. Sort of like re-stacking the rippings when I sweep the floor rather than actually throwing them all out the door and sorting them to make something.

But students really aren't much of a problem, they eventually go away and stop bothering me, no it's my own messy head that I have to clean out regularly so that there's an empty spot which is just begging to be messed up again.

June 27, 2014

Just Go to Japan

Since I've been thinking about the loss of students from budo I've naturally moved from getting folks in to keeping them once they're here. A big part of retention of students is grading. Students like to grade, it's just a fact, so giving them regular and convenient chances to grade is a good idea to keep the numbers up.

I'm glad that I started my iaido career after working my way through the ranks of aikido for a few years. I could just practice the art without worrying about getting a grade (which is usually associated with "progressing in the art"). I was content to spend several years working with no chance of a grading since there was no grading system. Nothing wrong with that for me, I didn't feel I was missing anything because iai was an adjunct to my aikido practice.

Later I would repeat the process with Niten Ichiryu and jodo and again, no worries for me, and likely none for many others who are long time budo folks doing similar, gradeless arts. But we aren't the majority. Students like to progress and they like the trappings of progression, they like certificates and coloured belts and such things. Students worry about rules, and requirements for rank and legitimacy because they aren't far enough along in the arts to appreciate that if they're learning they're fine.

The first few years of iai and jo I would hear folks say, during discussions about setting up a grading in Canada; "why don't you just go to Japan to grade". Two things about that bothered me, first, why assume I care about the grade in the first place and second, $4000 for a grade? Sensei who go back to Japan often, have no problem with grading in Japan, Canadians married to Japanese girls who go to visit the inlaws have no trouble with the idea of grading in Japan, but your average kid in Canada with no connections to Japan at all is not going to go to Japan to grade. They will simply switch to an art that cares enough about its students to provide gradings in Canada.

So eventually we set up grading systems in Canada for our students. It was, and is, a pain in the rear end but the students want to grade so we do the work.

At first we had once a year gradings in one place. That went over rather poorly since Canada from west to east is about as large as from Japan to Canada. I remember one comment of "I might as well go to Japan to grade, it's just as close". Quite quickly we went to once a year in two places, still not great and absolutely not a good way to get iai into the rest of the country outside the two gradings centers, but we worked on it and slowly folks from other places got involved. Having a yearly seminar with a grading attached as a second grading time helped a lot. Students were at the seminar to train anyway, and could take their first couple of gradings provided they came from far enough away. I liked that system, it made sense to everyone. Eventually more gradings were offered at other seminars and times and problems arose as seminars became confused with gradings or even became "grading seminars" but that's another story. Suffice to say I'm not a fan of "grading seminars" or even of attaching gradings to training seminars where they are a big distraction, but as I said, it makes sense.

Speaking of making sense, students like their gradings to make sense. This is a bit of a problem with iaido where they do 5 kata and the judges look for different things at each level. What do you train for? What do you have to do at each level? The manual isn't a lot of help, neither are the various books of advice to judges. For the first few grades you have to do the kata correctly, then you have to do them more correctly and finally you do them perfectly, now you're about half way through the grades, from now on you do them with different levels of spirit.

I can't define it, but I know it when I see it?

Not particularly clear, but by the time it gets really really hard to define, the students are usually stuck into the art so I just say "it's political" and they nod and carry on.

Jodo is a bit more easy to rationalize, we have a different set of kata for different grade levels, you can concentrate on those you will do on your next test and by doing that you move through the set. Of course you will be pretty bored waiting 10 years to go through 12 kata so folks tend to get ahead of the curriculum.

I check out the Niten Ichiryu wikipedia articles once in a while and I noticed that one group made their grading system very simple and easy to explain. There are three sets of kata in the school, and for each set of kata completed you got a grade. When you knew the three levels you got menkyo, and when you do the bo kata (which came into the school at some point I know not when) you got menkyo kaiden. That was a couple of years ago. Now I see (well, last time I looked) for menkyo kaiden you now also need to "be of good character". Ah how fast it gets political.

Still, the requirements are very clear, you learn a set and you get a grade. That's the kind of transparency that students love, it's clear to everyone whether or not you passed, and so goals are in sight and attainable. A damned sight better than "go to Japan and grade" in my opinion. It also helps retain students since they will likely say "may as well stay and learn the next set" once they get their present grade. In a system where the requirements to pass are more esoteric, it's much easier to decide the next grade isn't worth sticking around for. If that next grade is far, far away in time and space...

June 26, 2014

The lights are on but

Nobody's home. It hasn't happened for a while but last night I went to class and nobody showed up. Since my back was killing me and I was tired to boot I went to the bar early. An aspirin and a couple pints of muscle relaxant helped quite a bit.

I don't feel too guilty about not practicing myself, we had a good rip through Niten on the weekend and I did a class with the two aikido enthusiasts that are around this summer. In other words, I've played with enough folks lately to feel like I'm accomplishing something.

But now I'm thinking about participation in the martial arts again, as in "where are all the students"? They can't all be at MMA classes can they?

I know that we took quite a hit when the fitness gyms started up on every street corner, and fitness classes started up with names like "downward dawg hot zumba" so there are fewer folks around for the situps. Maybe that's all there is to it, just the exercise guys doing their calesthenics at a place with music and girls.

Nothing else much has changed that I can figure, the world is a safer place than 30 years ago yes, but folks seem to be a lot more fearful if you look at the willingness to give up privacy and other freedoms for "public safety", so you'd think that the self defense crowd would be up. Maybe the gun lobby has siphoned all the self defense dudes into the concealed carry ranks. Fair enough, I still can't dodge bullets so a gun trumps a stick. For the women, there are dozens more anti-assault groups than there were even a couple years ago, and despite the advice from Susan Brownmiller and other feminists from the '70s, self defense classes never really did catch on as empowerment. My women's self defense class has seen declining enrollment since the late 80s when I used to get 30 or 40 students each semester. Now it's down to 3 or 4 while the female student population is way up.

Perhaps folks really do believe it's a safer world, perhaps they just like to claim it's not when it suits their arguments.

Or maybe its the shift to a female dominated university, I teach at a school after all, and while the number of women in class has increased (from zero to a few), it was always mostly men who populated the martial arts classes.

So the workout crowd and the self defense crowd is gone, the sports crowd has probably gone over to the MMA. Too bad we can't figure out how to give kendo a few ground and pound rules so we could get a bit of television coverage, perhaps that would increase the interest.

Which leaves what? The folks like me who are too restless to read good books and sit meditation but want to be better people? There were never more than two or three of those in each class so perhaps those are the two or three who are still there.

I've got no solutions, advertising works but until we get our heads around advertising the budo and stop saying "McDojo" we aren't going to do a lot of that.

June 25, 2014

But I Won't

Niten Ichiryu is a tiny achool, there may just be more people practising in Europe than there are in Japan these days. It is of course the sword school of Miyamoto Musashi. I am half way through a weekend seminar and last evening we spent a while going through the various videos we could find on the net, comparing one line to another and even checking out variations over time in one line. You can do that now, so anyone who is posting a video these days should date it for the rest of us researchers.

As the end of my line of instruction, and with none of my teachers alive now, I suppose I could also do with the school what I wish. It's "mine" now, in that what I have is what I have, and it's up to me to have it as it makes sense, so if I change something to make sense, that's entirely legitimate.

But I won't. I don't really own the art because I was given it. I didn't create it any more than I created the box that holds my Grandfather's drill, he did. Even if someone handed me papers that said I was the certified holder of the papers, I would not have my own permission to change the art. It was handed to me in good faith and I will pass it along in the same good faith. I can change anything I want, who is to say no? Who is to say that's not what I was taught? Yet I won't.

I'm not playing the hero here, it's an entirely selfish attitude to be so conservative. If I change it to something that I understand I cut off my teacher. It's only by struggling with the kata as they were given to me that I can hope to learn what my teacher was trying to give to me. If I change the kata to suit myself, my current understanding of the art, I stop growing, I stop learning because now I get it, by definition I understand it.

It's not that I don't like playing with my understanding of the sword, but I've got a place to do that, it's in my Aikido class where I am giving a couple of dedicated and eager folks my version of aiki ken, and aiki cane and aiki jo and whatever else they want to learn that class. I love teaching them and even write up sets of kata for them, but what I'm doing there is ephemeral to me. I create a technique to make a point, I teach it, they get it to the best of their ability, and it's gone. It teaches me nothing because it's my creation, it simply tells me what I know now. They may have years of learning since I'm years ahead of them, but for me that new kata is just another chalkboard full of notes.

So today I will be teaching the Niten kata as I was taught. The students will turn their videos on and record my footsteps and my sword motions and then they'll practice and I'll make comments and in those comments, which they probably won't be filming, they'll hear my opinions on what I was taught. I'll tell them things that they may never hear again because what I'm saying is geared to someone else, to my student rather than to me. Why would I remember it? What I say "offhandedly" in class is what I know, or what I figure will work for them. It's not something I'm going to remember, but they might, and they will incorporate what I say and it may change their understanding of the art and it may change the way they do the kata and in that way maybe I'm changing the art to suit my understanding.

But change it because I can? I won't do that.

June 22, 2014

I Want a New Drug

Let's do a little thought experiment. Let's say that I found a drug that would make your budo kata perfect, instantly. Would you take it? This is sort of similar to the question given to Olympic athletes about taking a drug that would make them world champions but reduce their lifespan. My drug would do nothing except make your kata perfect.

Would you take it? If you just answered yes, please consider why. Would it be that your budo practice is for self defense and so you are now as safe as the kata can make you? What about if your budo is iaido, kendo or jodo? As far as I know there are very few people who do these arts for self defense. Now the kendo folks have tournaments to consider so the sporting instinct may be present here as it is for the Olympic athletes. You're a poor competitor if you won't do what it takes to win. I'm not talking about those of you who want the benefits of sport without the concerns about winning... I'm talking about competitive athletes and if you're not playing to the rules you're not competitive.

Personally, I'm more interested in those who say no. What is it that would prevent you from popping that pill that would make you perfect? Why on earth would you not want to be perfect with no effort? Could it be that the achievement of perfection is beside the point? Could it be the dragging of your rear end into the dojo day after day in the persuit of perfection is more important than the achievement? I often hear that, but what about work? I dragged my rear end into my last job for 24 years, much more faithfully than I went to the dojo, in fact I once landed in hospital with a heart problem at 4am and was at work at 9am the next morning (the department sent me a plant that got delivered to work the day after that). All I got out of that was money. Well OK that's more than I got out of 30 years going to the dojo I suppose.

Well I don't have such a drug I'm afraid to say, although I do get lots of questions that would seem to imply I do. Questions that are usually something like "so what do I have to do to pass my next grade?" I've got answers but no pill. I've also got questions, mostly something like "why are you trying to pass your next grade?"

Pill, pass, it's sort of the same thing really. You should ask what you're looking for and why. Perfection and passing are goals, you might be able to achieve both, maybe even at the same time... maybe not. Does perfection get you a pass? I can think of a case where it might not, as in when a panel figures that a student, for all his perfection, might learn more from failing an exam than from passing.

Are you shocked?

Well all I can say is think about it a bit more. In the meantime I want a new drug that gives me back to my 30 year old body so that I can keep practising toward perfection without the distraction of a failing vehicle, and a youthful liver that lets me drink as much beer as I can get down the hatch after class.

June 21, 2014

Your legs are not too long

And they are not weak. Nor are your intestines shorter, or your brain function different because your language has too many consonants. You can't use these excuses as a general reason why your iaido is garbage, no matter who has told you that's the reason.

Your iaido is garbage because you don't practice, and if you do practice a lot, your iaido is garbage because your teachers are garbage.

Even if Japanese is such a difficult language that we need to have a special subset to teach foreigners, there are enough Japanese who are fluent in your language that they ought to be able to explain even the most subtle concepts. A concept that can't be explained is one that either isn't understood or is just a word without meaning. So you can't use the excuse that concepts are beyond your comprehension, again, you just haven't worked hard enough or your teacher is garbage.

Of course I may be wrong here, perhaps your iaido isn't really garbage, perhaps your teacher isn't either, maybe you're being taught something that isn't being tested, or maybe the person calling your iaido garbage has a different definition of garbage than yours, or your teacher's.

On the other hand, if you are a big person with long legs your knees will be subject to a great deal more stress than if you are short and light. If your legs are heavily muscled, your calves and thighs may just meet a few inches away from your heels and butt which would tend to pry your knee joints apart, so you may be prone to injury. This isn't a racial or a national difference, it's a size difference and still doesn't give you an excuse for bad technique.

Stop looking for excuses, pay attention to your teacher, take all other advice with a grain of salt and get to work. By the way, your soil and snow are not unique either.

June 21, 2014

Making the Grade

Grades are funny things, they're one of the first things asked about by strangers, and one of the first things those same strangers get glassy-eyed about when you start expaining them. With good reason, grades are complicated from the outside. From the inside of course they're simple, you have whatever grade your sensei or your organization says you have. That grade is defined well or poorly but it's always good enough to slot you into the system somewhere. The advice I usually give is to answer all such grading questions with "yes I'm a black belt".

But from the outside it's "interesting". Let's look at some of the historical types of grade that don't fit into neat categories.

First there is a class that might be called "goodbye grades" where a sensei would hand someone heading back overseas a grade high enough to teach with. Sometimes the fellow leaving would state what rank he needed and that's what he'd be given. Hey, as long as he's not in town nobody can give you grief about his rank right? And if he needs it to teach overseas, what's the harm? Seriously, if he says the locals will only respect an 8dan and you give him an 8dan what's the harm? Of course in these days of the WWW "in town" can be half way around the world so I suspect these sorts of grades will get more rare.

That's opposed to the "airport promotion" which is self-administered, you get on the plane as a shodan and get off as a 4dan or some such.

Then there's the "thanks for deserting/joining" grade where you get a bump in rank when you join a different organization. In this case there's also the opposite situation where the offer to join includes a reduction or even elimination of rank but that one is sometimes declined.

Perhaps most interesting in the koryu is the "thank's for practicing" letter which, after a visit to another country you give to your host with the sincere wish that they keep practicing what they learned in the 3days/week/3hour seminar. This can even state that you are now the representative of the sensei and have the right to teach the art. Of course those sometimes get blown out of proportion into some sort of "ownership" status. Alternatively they also get blown up into "fraud" status.

Best solution of course is to simply say to any foreign student "go ahead and practice". That way you can later deny ever knowing the putz, or claim full credit for his amazing skills, students and organization. I've advised that method to more than one "lineage head", and keep my own collection of paper in a dresser drawer.

If you don't put it on paper the lawyers (real, jailhouse and/or internet) can't get hold of it. A beer, a handshake and basic honesty is magical that way.

June 19, 2014

Creation Myths

All martial arts come from a point source, Japanese arts can be traced back to China and those arts can be traced back to India. Or is that buddhism?

No wait, all Japanese budo are traced back to battlefield arts, you know, you try something on the battlefield and it works so you make it a kata to teach your students.

Or you have a fight with Musashi and then go meditate on a mountain to get divine inspiration from the tengu about how to beat him next time.

Speaking of Musashi, there's the archetypal inventor of a martial art. He just shows up one day with his two swords and beats up everyone. That's the ticket, you get an inspiration and create a school and you're famous for 400 years.

Or like Bruce Lee, you study a couple of arts and then "take the best and leave the rest". I suppose that's the real inspiration for most of the "new koryu" we see around today, Buddy studies iaido and aikido for a while and comes up with his own school for which he finds a cool name and installs himself as soke.

Shu Ha Ri right? Memorize the school, analyze it and then leave to start your own school.

It really isn't like that... well it is for Buddy and maybe he's got a club for a while, maybe he's got a bunch of clubs but if you want to say he's got a school, check back in three or four generations.

Let's go back to Musashi and his invention of a new school. Was it actually new? Pretty much everything comes from something if you look at it, and it would seem that Musashi's school was no different. He learned from his father, and then he worked out his own way of doing things. His ultimate work, the Gorin no Sho concerns his Niten Ichiryu and has exactly five kata, the Nito Seiho of the modern school. He doesn't mention any other techniques. But if you look at his earlier work, the 35 articles (36?) you will find one sword stuff, so what's going on? We look at a snapshot of the final version of his school, we don't see what went before because we don't look, so we assume his two-sword style just "popped into being".

It didn't of course, it was 50 or 60 years in the making and certainly evolved over time.

Buddy who creates a school out of bits and pieces of other schools has something that's bits and pieces. Doubtless it works, after all the schools he took it from made it work, so why not, but it ain't pretty. For another take on this idea look at the kendo federation seitei gata. The iaido kata are mostly taken from one lineage of koryu, with a couple kata hauled in from other schools to demonstrate other concepts, but the whole thing was a "mix tape" when it was created. Now, 30 years and a lot of hours of practice by a very large number of people has smoothed it out into a school of its own. The roots are in older arts, both the method and the theory, but it's a new creation as much as Buddy's art is. The difference is that Buddy isn't hundreds of highly experienced, highly ranked sword instructors, he's a three-year man so it's going to be a long time before he can work his style into something that makes sense internally.

On the other hand, there's also seitei jodo in the kendo federation. This is a set of 12 kata taken from a single school and practiced by thousands just as is seitei iai. In this case, the folks who own it can make a pretty strong argument that all you can learn in the old art, with it's dozens of kata, can be learned in the seitei. And since the same instructors are teaching the "new" school as well as the "old" school at the same time, they might have a point. The "new" school is a representative subset of the old, rather than a new invention. Subsets of kata are hardly new, koryu add and subtract kata at the whim of each successive headmaster. Musashi's Niten Ichiryu has been added to and subtracted from so why not Shindo Muso Ryu jodo? Well in fact it has had sets of kata added within the last couple of generations so why not "take the best" and create SMR light or seitei jo?

New sword school? In the absence of a war to test the kata? Sure, call it the Edo period. Then get to work on the creation myth.

June 13, 2014

Legitimate First

I am not surprised to see one of the groups that I was volunteered onto has become embroiled in a large discussion over whether or not we ought to be outing the fakes and denouncing the frauds of the budo world. I remembered a much more interesting discussion from the past where someone was wondering if he himself was legitimate.

My answer is that all we can do is teach as we were taught and as we please (as we feel is correct). Our students will stay or go, learn or not, and generally go on to teach as suits them, but we can't hand it to them on a plate any more than you can hand on your values to your kids by giving them whatever they want whenever they want.

The martial traditions aren't entrusted to us any more than our culture is entrusted to us. Our teachers taught us and gave us permission to teach, and that's the extent of it. We either follow their way, find a new way, or go some other way but no matter what we do, in the long run what matters most is that we're good people. Perhaps some of our students will see that and learn how to be good themselves but that's hardly our main concern.

Beyond that...

Worrying and watching and playing Koryu Kops may be fun but it really is no substitute for simply practicing. One can't legislate skill, talent, integrity or kindness. One can only embody and demonstrate it oneself.

One can "teach" how to beat people up, one can only "show" how not to. One can worry about "keeping the line pure" and "revealing fakes and frauds" or one can simply practice. I highly recommend the latter, it saves a lot of time, does your own students a lot more good in the long run, and does no real harm. The "fakes and frauds" of the martial arts world are no more dangerous than any other school of physical skill out there, like dance schools, yoga classes, or what have you. Anyone damaging or abusing kids will be sorted out by parents or police long before we on the net would find out and need to worry about it.

It's only hubris that leads us to think we need to (or can) protect something that cannot be protected, and does not need protection. No one of us can "save" a martial art from extinction. If we're not the "last of the line" we're not in charge of that, and if one of us is the "last of the line" it's not likely to survive us the way it was handed down to us (otherwise we wouldn't BE the last of the line), and if we change it (to get more students) it isn't what was handed down to us is it?

And if we "invented" the line... well that speaks to hubris itself.

So, to repeat myself yet again, we simply practice. Students find us or they don't, they practice or they don't. Our line continues or it doesn't.

Somewhere I've got video of one of the major budo cult figures ever to be around the West, a fellow who, as far as I know, knew next to nothing, set himself up as a major inheritor of the koryu, and had some of the biggest of the big guns looking to break his neck at one point... this was quite a few years ago when it was thought that a more direct approach than internet forums was appropriate.

OK it was before the WWW.

Thing is, aside from some students who may have felt cheated and or embarassed, I don't see any particular harm from his era. In fact I've met some of his students over the years and they are extremely polite, well mannered, and do what they do with great enthusiasm and precision. I did call it a cult didn't I?

I see no lasting problem with his teachings, and I haven't heard anything from him in years so I suspect he and his group will simply disappear as time goes on. I've watched a lot of frauds disappear.

When I was younger, during the ninja craze, we also had our local grandmaster show up and I was actually in the club for a while... helped him start up in fact, since his first adventures as a grandmaster were in an informal bunch of us head-bangers who did several different martial arts and met a couple times a week to beat the hell out of each other and do situps until we threw up. (That particular bunch of frauds even developed their own single and double baton exercises for some reason). It was fairly obvious from day one that he was not legit, but it was all exercise and nobody died while I was involved at least.

On the other hand, the decidedly legitimate Do Pi Kung Fu group that was around at the same time did have the occasional dislocated hip from the way they stretched. The group was booted out of the full/semi contact circuit in the area because they kept knocking people out in tournaments.

As for necessary warnings, I don't see too many threads around that are telling of clubs where the women are regularly preyed upon by senior students, where instructors have put cameras in the women's changerooms, where... oh you know what I mean, and these are all things that I've run across personally, not rumours. They are also all things that happen in legitimate dojos as much as in the "fakes".

But I also know that these things happen in yoga clubs, in volleyball leagues, in schools and in homes. I have taught women's self defence for 25 years so I've heard it all.

All of that is best taken care of by the police, not by internet chat forums, but by all means, let's discuss those folks. Oh wait, lawyers. I don't see a lot of value in discussing legitimate lineage but I'm afraid that's what we're left with.

"OY this guy is pathetic, his students don't even fall down nicely for the camera, you want to believe this stuff and study with him, go ahead. It's not going to hurt you, and you'll learn something perhaps... if only to ask questions next time."

Fakes and frauds? They're everywhere, you can find the same sort of threads on the modeling forums, all about fake modeling agencies. Those go from harmless twits who simply can't get models jobs but like to pretend so they can be around purty gurls, through small town agencies that make their money selling modeling lessons to scam artists that hook up with photographers to charge hundreds of girls thousands of dollars to develop a portfolio and then skip town to set up under a new name.

Given a choice between a couple hundred dollars in fees for some exercise and thousands of dollars for a major loss of self esteem just when you can't afford it as a young girl, I'd say the martial arts fraud is an easier lesson.

Sure it's all sleazy and distasteful, but it's also self-correcting. The students themselves will alert everyone else and parents will involve the police when necessary. I don't have to go looking for it, I find enough of it just being around.

How best to serve your traditions? I suggest that for me, it's by getting on with my practice, and I won't ignore that further to advise anyone else to do the same.

June 12, 2014

Kata Kollecting

I have been down the rabbit hole once more looking at kata lists for koryu iaido, and as usual I'm amazed at just how consistent things are given how inconsistent the old densho were.

Many of the old licenses hold a list of the kata that the student has learned to achieve that level. In the days before digital files it was pretty easy to list things out of order, or to forget kata or to add others. Especially when you get to the higher sets of practice which, by being super-secret, are done less often. There's a reason the school curriculum ends up written on the wall of the dojo after all.

In this specific case I've been looking through the kata lists for Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, Tanimura and Shimomura ha, and Muso Shinden Ryu. I don't mean four lists as you might think from the above, I mean the multiple lists in each of those above from translated densho on the net, books, and Wikipedia, not to mention my own notes of course. What I'm noticing is that standardization tends to center on the most wide-spread information source. The list in Wikipedia is easiest to get to, and is starting to be the default, and before that it was the mass-market book. I've mentioned before that I learned three different Tachi Uchi no Kurai sets over the years, but the one that is standard in my circle of iai is the one in Mitani Yoshiaki's second book, the one that most folks have. Even there, you can see some small differences between that edition and the earlier.

Of course the big standardizing movement, at least traditionally, in this lineage came from Oe Masamichi setting things in place and even re-naming kata to establish the MJER lineage as we know it today. I can't imagine he did much rearranging since the various lines and densho seem to be pretty close to what we have now even before the "rearrangement".

Along with the lists I must also check who taught who because I'm looking for a specific line. Who taught who? Yikes, what a concept. We're looking for straight lines in a plate of spaghetti. We truly believe in the one teacher per student thingie but it was never, ever that way if there were more than one teacher available in the region. Now, from a standardization point of view that's not a bad thing. One line from one teacher very quickly gets into unique lines. Doing a bit of cross training between dojo will smooth out a lot of variation.

So let's get back to Kata Kollecting now that I've drifted a bit and hinted at how kata get created. The beginner starts learning a few kata and as he learns the first set he's introduced to the next. His skill levels improve and so he's taught something a bit extra with the next set and with the next. Of course this creates the idea that if only you could learn enough kata your skill levels would be incredible so let's get as many kata collected as we can.

This lasts for about ten years or when the student starts writing lists on the dojo wall because there just isn't enough room in his head for all the names. Notes get written too because a lot of these kata start to look like a lot of other kata. (I swear at one point I knew 14 different kata that were a horizontal cut followed by a vertical cut).

Then comes the contraction years when the man gets shorter, his hair gets thinner and his desire to keep a dozen slightly different kata separate becomes smaller. Kata collecting becomes kata parking, "here, you! learn this set and remember it so I can concentrate". I used to be so proud that I could rap out the name of the next kata when sensei got that puzzled look in his eye and said "what's next" in class. Now I get it, that's what 4dans are for! To remember all the names and all the minor details I taught them three years ago when we last did this set of kata. They even remember things like "I learned this variation from so and so". Very useful and as long as one remembers to force the same information on a younger student before the 4dan catches on, you're good.

I remind myself of this as I consider how far to push this research down the lineage / kata list investigation. How much does a new student need to know considering some of these lost kata and found kata and cross-named kata are so close to each other technically?

Will probably get over it and move on to more productive activities when the coffee wears off.

June 11, 2014

Tests and non-tests

Sense and nonsense about gradings. Or is that sense and sensibility (and the zombie apocalypse which is why we study the sword isn't it?)

In the koryu arts I often hear folks say "I hate the idea of grading, it's a bunch of strangers who don't know where I'm at or who I am, I like that one day my sensei just hands me a certificate". I don't think there's much doubt that mostly those folk don't like getting up in front of others and demonstrating, but beyond that, is there really any difference between your sensei handing you paper or getting paper after a formal demonstration of your skills?

You might suggest to me that when sensei hands you a paper it's a reflection of where you're at... but what makes anyone think that a formal grading is anything different. Gradings are set up to test where you ought to be at a certain length of practice. If we're talking kendo federation (as I usually am) we can be pretty specific about what is expected when because it's all written down in books. At third dan (at about 4 years practice) we expect that a challenger knows all the dance steps to the 12 kata of iai, or knows the dance steps to the first 8 kata of jo. So you go to the exam and you demonstrate a knowledge of the dance steps and you get the grade. At fifth dan (11 years or more of practice) you better know everything in the book and be on your way to being smooth, confident and more than halfway arrogant.

The test and the "handed to you" paper are both saying the same thing.... you know what you're expected to know at this point in time... so there's no particular difference except the presence of the formal demonstration.

Well, you say, that's a big difference. The test means you can fail, you can screw up your test and not get the paper. Paper from sensei is based on his watching you since the last paper, not what you do on the day.

This may be true, but unless sensei promises you the paper on a specific date and gives it to you faithfully, what makes you think you aren't being denied the first four times he's considered you, due to some boneheaded move you made in class? You won't know because there was no formal test and so you also won't know if you're on track or not... in both cases you get the paper when you get to the required minimum standard, but with one system you know if you're fighting to make the standard, with the other you don't hear anything except the usual complaints from sensei that you still need to practice. (Which is a constant background noise that is not designed to tell you if you're on track at all, just to reassure you that you'll never be good enough).

If sensei gives you and everyone else the paper when he says you get the paper? Participation ribbons at junior school track and field day? You were there, you got a memento of being there. Attendance stars on the chart on the wall. Wait, that's pretty much the wooden name tags that move up and down the board, a combination of when you started and how often you come to class isn't it? Nothing wrong with that at all, but it's perhaps tracking something other than position in the training curriculum, which is why we get the paper from either system and why you get assessed by someone for intangible qualities that can't be recorded like attendance.

Gradings or handed paper are answers to a simple question. Where am I at on the training journey? The tests (either system) are set up to determine whether you're where most students are for the time you've put into practice. Yes? Paper. No? Next time perhaps.

The thing to understand is not the difference between the test and the handed paper systems, but the difference in what is expected from your last test/paper to the next. Your 5dan test in the kendo federation says you know the technical stuff, your 7dan says you know a bunch of the non-technical stuff that isn't "in the book". A koryu system is unique to each school of course but will likely be a test (attestation) of technical skills at lower certification and a test (attestation) of character at higher.

What else could it be?

June 10, 2014

You're The Best

There has been some talk lately (always) about relative skill levels in iaido ranks between countries. One statement I heard lately concerned a concern about "perceived inequalities".

Indeed, perceived by whom? Firstly it would have to be by someone who cares about rank, someone to whom it mattered. I don't mean an organization, rank really does matter to the rank granting person or group because it's a way to obtain fees and its a way to certify instructors and judges. As I've often said, there are two ranks of meaning, you can teach and you can certify teachers. I was reminded this last weekend that there is a third, you can certify those who certifiy. Well yes, that's true but a topic for another day.

Back to perceived inequalites between countries. The discussion needs someone who cares about grade as I said, and of course there are many who do. One usually cares about grade because it is connected to desires. For confirmation of skill, for validation of general worth, or to satisfy the desire to teach (which is connected with the insane idea that teaching is a desirable thing to do). One might care about rank so that their organization have the ability to grow and perpetuate itself (ie have teachers and judges to make more teachers). This last is, to my mind, a fine reason to care about rank, as is the desire to contribute a bit of cash back to the organization, although that can always be done with a direct donation. The other reasons are selfish and ought to be guarded against.

The next thing needed to be concerned about differential skill levels is the belief that there is some way to make that distinction. The immediate response is, usually, "you can tell", but how does one "tell" different skill levels in iai? Let's go through the possibilities. First of course is always "because I can see it" which implies you have the ability to judge the relative levels of folks. Are you of judging rank? If not, perhaps you should question your ability to judge objectively. Are you a judge? If not, and you are of judging rank you might consider why you are not on the judging list rather than judge others... yes there is more to being a judge than being of eligible rank, provided there is enough qualified rank around.

Alright, so "my sensei says the levels are different". Assuming your sensei is on the judging lists, you may have an argument here, but is your sensei objective about other judging panels? Really? The very fact that he is questioning other judges calls into question the entire judging system. All of it.

Let's cut straight to the crux of the matter. Iaido is judged subjectively and so requires judges that can see the difference in level between challengers to a rank. Tournaments are the same, one must have the ability to judge between two competitors and say one is better than the other. No problem you say? What is the judging criteria? Do you know? As a judge I have been through judging seminars but do I know that those in other countries have been through the same seminars? I assume so, but does that mean we all see the same thing? We all interpret the criteria in the same way? The fact that there is a panel which votes and which sometimes splits votes will tell you something about that if you think a moment.

So I'm saying that subjective voting is subjective? Yes. It will never be anything else. So let's get away from gradings as a way of determining relative skill levels and just go to the tournament model. Umm what tournament? There is no world iaido championships, so we can't go there to see if one country is better than another at a specific rank. But there is an all Japan tournament isn't there? So we can look to that to see if the idea of tournament rather than grading panel is a good way to sort the levels. So we look, and what do we find? It would seem that the best iaidoka seem to drift around the country each year as the tournament moves from province to province.

Go look up the results and compare the winning team to the hosting province.

As the students at the seminar this weekend noted, there may be some problems with the tournament theory of sorting so other ideas were put forward. The sorting hat was rejected out of hand as it being hard to find a hat. Direct competition with sharps was suggested (the "rats in a barrel" method of sorting) but even there it was admitted there might be problems with sorting skill levels since so many other factors come into being like age, injury, wind velocity, angle of the sun and the local laws on duelling.

Like trying to determine which professional sports team is the best, it's better argued by the fans over beer than by such "objective" tests as wins or losses, otherwise there would be no fans for those teams which have not won a championship in two generations.

Relative iaido skill level per rank. What is it? What do you measure? Who determines or how is it determined?

Do You Care?

June 9, 2014

The inertia kid

I hate traveling, except when I'm traveling. I hate doing the photography magazine http://180mag.ca/ that I've been publishing for probably coming on 10 years now but I keep doing it. Same with http://ejmas.com/ which is a martial arts publishing house with several magazines under the banner.

Not real keen on teaching, certainly don't like demonstrating or doing seminars in new places.

But I do all of it because I've always done it, and once I'm doing it, it's not so bad. Inertia keeps me doing something and inertia makes me hate starting it.

If there's stuff you need to do, or should do because it's good for you, inertia will both help and hinder. Push hard enough to get going and you'll find it easier to continue. Without that initial push it's hard to get the flywheel spinning. On the other hand, it can be hard to stop.

Take the photography magazine. I started it because a stylist I was working with wanted to do a print mag. Having been involved in the money pit of print and newsstand sales I told her that it would be better, cheaper and easier to do an online version. It was, it started and then it kept going because it wasn't a big expense. In fact for a little while the magazines as a whole paid for the hosting and the bandwidth through google ads. Now that revenue has disappeared because folks have ad blockers on their browsers. Me too, so now I pay for the hosting out of pocket and still work away at the production once a month, feeling that pressure to put out the next issue on time, finding the photographers, coding the thing...

I am supposed to put in a story of my own once a month to keep my hand in and give me a reason to do the issue. That starts to weigh on me too, and when I don't do a story I'm more relieved than alarmed. So why continue? Because the other photographers appreciate the magazine, those starting out appreciate the exposure and I think it's a good thing that there's a place for them to publish some of their work. The more established photographers, the ones who don't really need to publish in our little online mag, do anyway because it helps the youngsters along the way. Despite what most people think, the established folks really don't mind helping the youngsters along.

Which is, I suppose, why I'm still doing EJMAS aside from the fact that it was and likely still is a great advertising platform for my business. It helps promote the martial arts in general, and when the pie gets bigger, my local slice gets bigger.

I teach that local slice of students because it brings in new folks, and because it gives me a place to practice, (we'll see what happens if I ever get my own dojo built in the back yard) and because "I've always done it"... inertia.

Now I just want to sit here and watch the world go by the window.

June 5, 2014

Orphaned at 50

Not to stretch the sensei as dad metaphore too far (it's a lot easier to boot out a student than it is to boot out a child, for one thing there's a lot less legal paperwork to fill out) but let's go with it and talk about being an orphan.

I've been practicing 6 or 7 martial arts for up to 30 plus years, some of them, and at a quick count I've lost almost as many teachers as I have arts. This can happen for many reasons and it's happened to me in several ways but in all cases you've got to deal with the lack of a teacher so let's examine some ways to cope.

I started with Aikido in 1980 and began iaido in 1983 when I realized I needed to work on my posture. Circumstances (ie lack of time) made me drop out of Aikido for a decade or so as I concentrated on iai and left the aiki to my sensei and, after he retired, to the other senior students. Recently I have gone back to help teach classes as one of those instructors retired and moved away.

It's a university club and there are no highly advanced folks who need highly advanced instruction so I'm coasting on my old skills and not demonstrating much in the way of how to fall down. That might change if I keep losing weight and my knees permit but I'm not holding my breath. The club is hooked in to its organization through the other instructor so I don't need to worry about the grading stuff, I just go in and ask the class what they want to work on and we work on that.

As a result of those things, and the fact that I really can't do Aikido any more (I can't take the falls if I want to be walking in ten years) I haven't felt the need to find myself a teacher. This is one response to being an orphan, if you've got the credentials (I have an antique teaching rank) and you have something to contribute, just keep teaching as usual.

As mentioned, I began iaido in 1983 at an aikido summer camp as it happens. My first lessons were in Muso Shinden Ryu and I worked away on that as much as I could until I found an instructor close enough to study with regularly. He happened to be Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, another school, so I switched styles... slowly as I discovered recently since I seem to have made extensive notes on the first two sets of Shinden at some time.

Having started an art with one teacher who I could not follow easily, I found another teacher close enough and switched arts to keep learning. This is another response to the loss of a teacher. If you're not at teaching level and can't realistically teach a class on your own (to get the bodies together to have a place to practice, which is the most common reason to teach) you must find another teacher.

Jodo is a strange journey for me. I started in the early 90s (well I started in 1980 if you count aiki-jo but I'm referring to Shindo Muso Ryu) after attending a seminar and being asked to continue. I already had two koryu but agreed to study ZNKR jo in order to introduce it into the CKF. This we did a few years later. The jodo journey has been one of seminars and multiple instructors, of some koryu and much seitei. The result of which is that I have never had a teacher I could say was my sensei. Now there is one person in the art who I consider my examplar, my ideal, but there was never the sensei-student relationship. Of course I have been completely impressed with all the Japanese sensei who have come to teach seminars and while my jodo may be best described as "mogrel" I continue to practice with no cause to complain.

So here is another way to deal with being an orphan, pick up your instruction as best you can, and for having no particular teacher, we have certainly had excellent instruction which was actually not as varied as it could have been. With a standardized practice like seitei jo we have managed to learn enough to progress a bit through the grading system. Of course the other way to look at it is to claim the Kendo Federation jodo committee as our "sensei", and that wouldn't be all that far off.

So three ways to deal with being an orphan, just keep calm and carry on, find another teacher, or if you've never been anything but an orphan, learn as much as you can from the foster parents.

June 4, 2014

Where's my Teacher?

Is that my teacher? No that's a horse...

for those who are Terry Pratchett fans.

But the question did come up recently. Actually a couple of questions came up so I'll answer them all here and trust that you folks will understand that I'm not your teacher. Unless I am your teacher.

First question was more of a comment to the effect that more information on teachers and students should be given to beginners in the art right away.

Aside from the patent impossibility of giving people enough information, it's not my business to teach someone else's students. If it was, how would I communicate with "everyone". There was a time when the iaido-l listserver had close to five thousand members and there were very few other groups of swordsmen on the net. That was close. Then came the era of a thousand web-based martial arts discussion fora and now there are groups on faceplant, hookedup, and who knows what other "social media" which are more properly called "me and my little circle of buddies media". There is no way to reach "everyone" and there never was. Even if you try to reach a specific group you run into trouble. I was my High School publicity director. From that day over 40 years ago until today I have been hearing people tell me "there should be more communication" which translates to "you should track me down and shout in my ear until I'm paying attention to what you're saying".

No, you put the information out there on the agreed upon distribution channel and you're done. "It's on the website" is enough if all members of the group have been told at sign-up that's where the information is going to be posted. My inevitable response these days to people who want to know about grading requirements is "finding out when the sign-up deadline is, is part of the test".

In the case of information to new students, the proper place to post it is in the mouths of their teachers.

Which brings me to the next question asked by folks who are sometimes at a distance from a teacher, sometimes picking things up seminar by seminar, sometimes in an art that is being passed along by fellow students. "Just who is my teacher"?

If you can't narrow it down immediately, without thought, to a single person, it's very likely that you don't have a teacher. Rather, you don't have a sensei in the sense that you've got someone who considers you his student, is responsible for your care and feeding, takes the blame for your bad behavior, and will bend the rules (modify the art) for you if necessary.

If you have no sensei it's not a tragedy. Everyone, eventually, has no sensei. Your sensei will eventually pass on, sometimes to Zumba, sometimes to MMA, sometimes just pass on. You are left with what you are left with and you deal with it. One of the strangest concepts I've ever come across is the western student who studies for 30 years with a teacher and when that teacher dies, goes to another Japanese instructor who is actually younger that the student. What's the point? Unless the new teacher can give you something other than a "connection to Japan" it's a waste of time for both. I am reluctant in the extreme to take on a student who has been doing martial arts longer than I have and only do it after a very long courtship where I decide whether or not I've got something to teach and he's got something to learn. I don't "take on" a student, I realize I have a student bit by bit over years of practice together.

Which is the final part of the equation. You may be able to identify someone who seems to be a good candidate for "your sensei" but you don't really get to decide that he is. As I mentioned before, not everyone in my class is my student, even if my class is the only one they attend. I teach anyone who is in front of me, I will loan some of them money, I will buy some of them beer, I will sign passport applications for some and I will house, feed and clothe some of them if they need it. Somewhere in there is the dividing line between a student and someone I teach a martial art.

So where's my teacher? If you have someone who is teaching you a martial art who you know for a fact would put himself, his reputation and his career or his membership in your budo organization on the line for you, you may have a sensei. There are a few folks I would do such things for, but not as many as people might think. As a student, consider what a sensei would do for you, and perhaps don't be so quick to claim one as yours because when you screw up, that sensei might just have to take the fall. I have been threatened physically and legally over the actions of my students, I have risked my relationships with my own sensei for students, and I have rarely told those students about it (unless there was a lesson in there to be given). This I consider the responsibility of a sensei.

Rewards? There are none other than the rewards you get when a son or daughter does well in the world. Students of a sensei are in the same class as children, you give but don't expect to get in return, you just hope they pass on the genes / memes.

Don't think the relationship is easily made.

What, you think it's an honour to give a sensei your studentship? You figure you pay for dues and for private lessons and buy him beer it's good? That's hiring a teacher and there's nothing wrong with that, please, buy me beer, but it's not what I'm thinking about when I think of "my students".

There are sensei out there who will accept students and claim students if it's to their advantage politically as they move their way up the ranks, they will also claim sensei in the same way. This should not be a shock, it's the human way to acquire followers and latch onto rising stars to get ahead in business, but that's not the relationship I'm talking about here. That's just playing the game and it's fine if you understand what it is. Don't expect your sensei in this case to bail you out of jail or come over and help re-roof your garage. Do expect to be denied at the first hint of legal trouble and do expect to be expected to come over and re-roof sensei's garage.

OK gotta go paint the sauna, where's my student?

June 3, 2014

One Sensei

It's odd that I have simply assumed for most of my budo career that you have one sensei in any particular art, and that "everybody knows that". Apparently I'm wrong, I have met lots of folks in my organization lately who seem to think they've got multiple sensei and even multiple, conflicting loyalties amongst those sensei.

I think this may be the result of couple of things. First is the type of organization I'm in (the kendo federation). I started my budo in Aikido and it was a typical heirachy setup, with my kyu grades coming from my sensei and my shodan from Japan. My teacher was the only link I had to the art due to the organizational setup and to the lack of local instructors. There was no doubt in my mind who my sensei was, and even when we had senior visiting instructors for seminars they were my sensei's sensei, not mine. My Aikido sensei never told us this, and was quite happy for us to learn from the visitors, but it just never occured to us students that we might now have two sensei.

In the iaido world in Canada it started out similarly clear-cut. There were only four of five people teaching iai in the country so geographical realities made it clear that your sensei was your sensei. We also began with koryu rather than the Zen Ken Ren iai and that contributed to the lack of confusion as to who is teaching you. One line from teacher to student.

Enter growth, enter the grading system and enter the ZKR iai instruction for beginners. Now we are seeing a world-standardized set of instruction that comes directly down from Tokyo so that all sensei are teaching the same thing (in theory). If the sensei next door is teaching what you need to know to pass the next grade, the same as the sensei in your usual dojo, why not consider both of them your sensei. Why not indeed? Up to about 4dan it really doesn't matter, the grading panel is a panel, and the requirements are pretty much all technical. Doesn't really matter who tells you to stop your draw at an exact position as long as you do it. Beyond 4dan things change a bit and there are some folks who have what I'd have to call a "muddy style" that is going to cause them problems with the grading system.

Growth also brings "assistant instructors" which is something I've never experienced in my whole career. All my clubs were small and I was usually amongst the senior students anyway. I never had to try to learn from two or three different people in the same dojo, but I can see that it might give students the impression that they could have multiple sensei, especially if the assistant teachers were not careful to speak with only their sensei's voice.

We have had 24 years of sensei from Japan coming at minimum once a year to Canada to teach iai and those instructors have been asked to teach our students as if they were their own. That is, to correct them without politeness or regard for the feelings of the local instructors. This is the only way we can make sure we're up to date with the latest seitei news and views so we have done it happily. However, this being treated as a "foreign student" may also have created the idea in the students that one could have a local and an away sensei. The concept was never endorsed by the visiting instructors of course, in fact quite the opposite, with them explaining at length that you need a single guide to follow in the arts, but students are ever keen to learn and will make their own minds up on what is best for themselves.

Another factor in the modern budo education system is the internet, where one can read about, watch and discuss very senior instructors and what they taught. It's a rather startling thing for me to read a young student writing "so and so said..." I get a mental stall every time as my brain says to me "how did I miss seeing him in class with so and so" before I realize that the writer is just repeating something he has been told or has read. It's not that I'm stupid, or that I don't repeat things that I've read of past instructors as well, it's just that their tone seems to imply that this is first hand knowledge rather than hearsay and again, I think that contributes to a feeling that anybody can be one's sensei.

In fact I have noticed that even I have started to feel it's rather old-fashioned to hear someone say "could I attend your class if my sensei allows me to come practice with you"? I will teach anyone who shows up in front of me, but I have always assumed they have their sensei's permission to do so. I may correct technical details of seitei gata, I may teach them things like Niten Ichiryu where I know their own sensei doesn't teach it, but there's no way I'm teaching someone else's student what only their own sensei should be teaching. Not without permission to do so, and even then it's going to be carefully stated.

Which brings me to koryu. I've actually heard students discussing and even arguing about the correct way to perform a koryu kata, bringing in various sensei to support their arguments as if there was a "correct" way to do koryu and one sensei may know while another may be mistaken. In fact, at more than one seminar I've been told by the students in front of me that I was "doing a kata wrong" while teaching koryu. I'm sure they are simply reminding me that I've got it wrong (and for some of the more obscure arts we practice, my own students certainly have to remind me). My favourite is when one of their seniors drags them to the back of the class with a hand over their mouth. I don't know what sort of thunder-face I make when told something like that but it's nice to know that at least some folks remember the old ways.

One sensei per art, sure you can learn from others but.... one sensei per art. No question of conflicting loyalties and if you ever find you disagree with one to favour another, it's time to decide you only have one sensei. Let's hope the one you pick will take you in. Not everyone in front of me in a class is my student, even if mine is the only dojo in which they practice.

June 2, 2014

How Much is Not Enough

I've been in a couple of conversations lately about doing the martial arts while aged. Can you pass an iai grade if you can't get into seiza, can you do Aikido if you don't fall down, can you do jujutsu if you can't take an arm bar, can you do karate from a wheelchair, that sort of thing.

The answer depends on many things. If you're young and healthy you tend to be quite hard-assed about the subject. "If you can't do it the way you're taught you aren't doing it at all and you should quit."

If you're into the arts for fitness, a lack of sweat due to inability to push the joints may result in accusations of "slacking". Similar things are heard from those who are in it for self defence or survivalism. Again, if you're not working hard at the exact techniques you are "holding back the class." Sensei must be slowing down for the lagging students and not teaching those who are working real hard, the next technique.

Beginners tend to have a very limited view of the arts, they haven't seen much so how could they not? The art is limited to what they've been shown, and their seniors often reinforce this attitude by telling them not to make stuff up for fear of bad habits. What they know is what the art is, if you aren't doing that you aren't doing the art.

Teachers themselves may give the impression that the arts are not adaptable to incapacity. Part of the job of sensei is to get you beyond your present ability, and if you can't get into seiza or grip a sword correctly due to injury, you may be told to "keep trying". The body is a marvellous thing, it adapts and heals, however slowly, until we're cold in the ground so a constant nudge toward the ideal can help overcome many problems.

But how much is not enough? Let's take iaido as an example, it's the art most intolerant of modification after all. The solo nature of the art means that positionalism can become the ideal very quickly. Your arms have to be in this exact position, you have to stop a cut to the face in exactly this position, your legs have to be in exactly this position. If you can't sit seiza how can you do the techniques from seiza? After all it's called seiza no bu not sort-of-bent-knees no bu, if you can't do seiza you can't do seiza no bu.

All very true at some level. We do demand exact angles and precise movement, and we do ask folks to get into seiza to do seiza techniques, and to stand up to do standing techniques and if you can do either you will do them. What if you must modify your shoulder position slightly because you have a torn away rotator cuff? Perhaps. What if you've got a whithered left arm and can't move the scabbard to the correct position as you draw? Still iaido? How about knee replacements that mean you absolutely must not drop into seiza or you will never get up again? Neurological damage so that you can't turn and cut in the same motion, instead having to wait to catch your balance?

Looking at those questions we might, if we are thoughtful, begin to pick apart the art itself and wonder about why the positions are so sacred. Looking at the student with the rotator cuff problem, might we say to ourselves "well he isn't in the correct position but he's in the strongest position he can manage with his shoulders". Is that enough to keep it iaido?

Let's go back to 1590 in one of the smaller prefectures of Japan. You're the swordmaster appointed to teach the local samurai some iaido. The daimyo introduces you in class the first day and you look out to see some grizzled old warriors who are genuinely nasty customers but some of them have crooked legs and stooped shoulders from injuries obtained in the wars. There's Joe over there who can't get his legs bent into seiza any more, he never sits in seiza, he'll never be in seiza again for the rest of his life. You want to tell him he can't do iaido because he can't do the seiza techniques? I doubt it, your job is to teach these guys to draw and cut so they can go out and ambush the neighbours when they're told to do it. If they never sit seiza it's a bit stupid to think about them and seiza in the same idea isn't it? You teach them as much as you can, you adapt the art to their needs or you're a crap teacher.

Functionalism over positionalism. Does it work? In iaido if you get the sword out of the scabbard and lay it across the other guy's neck before he can get his neck out of there, it's likely to have worked, no matter what odd contortion you've had to make for that gimpy hip.

The partner arts are a bit easier to define if you're thinking yes or no as to what is too little. In Aikido if you can throw your partner it's a pretty clear case that you're doing Aikido, despite the ugliness of the turn and twist of the wrist. What if you can't throw a young, resisting black belt because you've got arthritis in your wrist? Well the black belt knows what you're going to do, he's prepared and he's ahead of the technique so let's try it out on an unsuspecting punk off the street and see if it's still Aikido. Now we've got functionalism down to where the arts are intended to work, against someone who isn't expecting it and isn't trained to receive it.

Valid? Perhaps, it depends on what you're looking for in the art as we mentioned earlier. What if our old aikido-gramps can't even close his hands to grab a wrist, what if he can just about manage to get out of the way of an attack by shuffling to the side and turning carefully on fragile knees to face the attacker and do it again, and again, and again. Is it still Aikido? What if he gets out of the way half the time only, is he doing half-aikido?

So do we go to attendalism? If you're in the karate class you're doing karate? To tell you the truth, that tends to be my position... errr take on the subject but I'd rather the gentle readers make up their own minds than take what little of mine is left me.

What to do if you're semi-functional and you want to begin or continue with the martial arts?

One of the things I love about the arts is that you can do them for your whole life. Just be smart about it. First, find a teacher who can deal with failure. If he's the sort who figures he's a failure if you can't get into seiza, don't go to his class. Practice with someone else who doesn't mind that he's failed to shorten your walking lifespan by letting you do the "seated techniques standing".

I once could jump over a four foot barrier and side kick a big guy holding a blocker into the wall ten feet back. Now I can't get my feet past my waist, can't jump or land without damaging my knees and can't punch worth a damn because I've got about two out of five attachments left in my rotator cuffs. Do I do Tae Kwon Do any more? No I switched to the weapons arts where I don't have to remove my feet from the ground and I can slice rather than crush. Consider this in your choice of martial art when you're starting at a respectable age. As they used to say "kicks are for kids".

In the kendo federation there's a natural progression to be had. Start kendo as a child when you have achilles tendons, switch to iaido when the kids start beating the hell out of you, and then move to jodo when you find that having a cane is something you can carry that is useful not only to beat up the kids, but also to walk home afterward. Be age appropriate, do judo with your pink punk mohawk, do aikido with your Brooks Brothers power suit and do tai chi with all the other greybeards on the park bench.

Remember that as long as you're able to move around you have one last technique if you need it. You may be crippled for the rest of your days and it may be real ugly aikido but the little blighter that attacked you will remember his mistake for a long time... after he wakes up.

June 1, 2014

The Two Faces of Self-practice

A former student of mine who has moved away asked me if I thought self-practice of iaido was something that was possible for him.

There are two answers to that question. First, if you want to get ranked in the art, than no, there's no way you can practice without a teacher in seitei iai and get a rank. I don't care how good you are, you can't move through the ranks without a teacher.

Despite the supposed "objective" aspects of seitei practice and judging, there is too much to fill in between the lines and you can only do that with a teacher who is up on the latest flavour from Tokyo. Note I didn't say Japan, I said Tokyo, as the rest of Japan apparently struggles just as hard as the world outside Japan to keep up with the standards as given by the powers that be. This won't stop any time soon so a connection needs to be made through an instructor who is plugged into the information pipeline.

Now some may remind me that gradings aren't given by Tokyo (up to 5dan) but by the regions, and that outside Japan gradings aren't given by Japan at all, or even the FIK (international kendo federation which is the body where all countries are linked, Japan included). That may be true but most countries, Canada included, pay attention to what we are told is the current practice so judging-wise, we have always followed the crowd.

For the koryu folks that are now thinking that it's not that way in their organization, I assure you it is. Rank in a koryu depends on a teacher as much as in the kendo federation. Rank means, is defined as, a certification of a level of ability or permission from another person or organization. If there is an organization out there that awards rank for ability to anyone who walks in off the street, I'd be looking closely at the cost of that rank. While I know some folks who were offered rank to join another organization, it inevitably involves moving sufficient numbers of students into the other financial stream, or else the potential to attract more students to a new art. Offering advanced rank to outsiders is about increasing membership dues, cross-ranking of self-inflated rank hierarchies (membership again, as beginners are supposedly impressed by high rank in multiple arts), or, more charitably, just slotting folks into the rank system (but again, why the switch and why not start at the bottom?)

Of course, my student is quite unlikely to want to grade in the art, he just wants to practice, and that's an entirely different thing. To practice iaido all you need is a basic understanding of the forms, a sincere desire to understand the principles, and a self-critical approach to each practice. Considering hr emailed and asked if it was possible to practice "down on the farm" and even went so far as to send a couple of videos to make sure he wasn't too far off the mark, I'd say he was well-equipped to practice iaido for the values that I consider important. (That would be pretty much everything except the desire to achieve rank, which I consider more important to instructors than students for the obvious political and art/organization-promotional reasons).

I think I'll tell him to go right ahead and come see me when he's in the neighbourhood.

May 31, 2014

Is That So

One of my favourite stories is the one with the priest and the baby. The village shows up at the temple and says the priest got the local girl pregnant and so he now has to take care of the baby.

He replies "is that so" and takes the baby.

Some months later the girl shows up again and says that she made up with the boyfriend and she wants her baby back.

The priest says "is that so" and hands over the baby.

That story, plus the one about the girl at the stream always show up in my head after the spring seminar.

The stream? Two priests were walking and came to a muddy stream crossing. A young girl was there in a pretty dress looking hopeless. One priest picked her up in his arms, carried her across, set her down and continued on his way. The other priest was silent for a while but eventually couldn't hold his tongue and said "brother how could you have picked up that girl, you know we are forbidden to touch a woman." The other priest looked at him with a slightly startled eye and said "are you still carrying that girl? I set her down back at the stream".

There are worlds of lessons in both those stories and I take great comfort in them at all times during the year but for some reason they seem most important to me as the winter slows down and spring arrives, making young girls randy and streams muddy.

May 28, 2014

Another One Bites the Dust

Another seminar done with the usual fuss and bother of 150 hang-over and jet-lag cranky folks but I'm hoping that everyone had a good time and learned lots. I heard nothing at all about students being stupid during class, so that's a good seminar from my point of view. It's all about the training.

On the other hand, there were a few suggestions on how to be a bit better as students of a Japanese cultural art.

First, the photograph. When everyone is sitting in one place and the camera guys are picking up the 28 cameras you must always look straight ahead and have the fixed smile everyone associates with the group photo. This year one of the sensei noticed that every shot he received had people laughing, talking and in general not looking at the camera. We must improve this next time. We will have a class on this soon.

And... no the rest of the suggestions I got were more or less directed at me so I won't blame you guys for that.

Thanks to everyone who came out and practiced hard. I say it every year and I mean it.

Without you it doesn't happen.

I'm not just talking about the folks who jump in and help. Even if you're just there to train and go home again you have paid your fees and that's what pays for the tickets, room rentals, food and all the other stuff. You all contribute to the seminar, every one of you so good job team!

And for those who haven't a clue what seminar I'm talking about.... it's a secret.

PS, Bren says thank you to everyone who dropped by the table.

May 22, 2014

Shhhh It's a Secret

Secrecy is mostly a mindset, rather than a physical condition. If there are more than three people who know something it's not much of a secret, one person in the know would be ideal I suspect.

In budo we have secrets in the kata. I know this because I've read on the internet at least 50 or 60 times that Katori Shinto Ryu kata have places where one hits the bokuto but really, shhh, one is hitting the wrist or some other useful target.

In Uchida ryu tanjo there is a technique called kobushi kudaki, where you hit the sword twice before hitting the swordsman on the head. Fist smashing? There's no fist smashing here, look away, keep moving folks, nothing to see here.

Our government loves it's secrets, which is government speak for restricted information. Makes sense, the less information the public has, the easier to sell the "talking points", but why pretend that secrecy has any meaning beyond that. Our national news network just blew the redaction marks off a document obtained through a freedom of information order. It concerned high level government contacts between Canada and a certain other country that has engaged in colonial aggression. Dangerous stuff to let out there, but the news network did some digging and found out the leader they weren't supposed to know about was the prime minister of the United Kingdom who was here on a quite well-documented visit.

Like I said, secrecy is more a mind-set than a reality.

Mostly I just laugh at this stuff, a thousand years ago I knew a spy in the RCMP (before their spies got told they were not spies any more and got fired into our new more secret spy agency). Anyway this buddy disappeared for a few days and when he came back he said he couldn't tell us where he was. We were of course dead right in our speculations as he confirmed to us many years later when he was allowed to without "killing us afterward". All you needed to do was put a couple of pieces of information together.

Which brings me to a rather more dangerous side of things. Just as our little group took some information and put it together to find out where our buddy was, the spy agencies are doing the same thing to their own citizens. Case in point in Canada is the collection of wi-fi "metadata" by our spy agency in airports. We are told this "metadata" is harmless public information, no different than a phone book, they are not listening in on the actual conversations, just collecting data that is open and available to everyone through the network connections.

Really? So you know who I am, who I am talking to and where I am. From that you will know that the guy I just emailed is in contact with his cousin the terrorist and what conclusion will you come to?


Metadata extrapolated got us accurate information on where our buddy the spy was, but we might well have been wrong. The metadata the governments of the world are collecting on us can also be collated and turned into "knowledge" of the same sort. If you're a criminal you might be concerned about that, if you're a spy you damned well ought not to be using publicly interceptable networks like the interwebs. If you're a private citizen just going about your grey market affairs of selling your car without paying tax on it, you ought to be outraged that the government is working on this stuff.

Conspiracy theory nut you may call me, but I can see the end of cash in my lifetime, no more untracked commerce, it's going to be back to the barter system to get things done without giving the tax man his share. I'll roof your house if you come plumb my new bathroom. No more garage sales without GST.

The concern is privacy, not secrecy.

So back to my budo point. The koryu are full of "secrets", sure, but they're the secrets that students get told very quickly, and aren't kept, simply because they aren't saving your life any more. We don't duel so our secrets are more fun than functional.

But to take that secrecy to the point of not demonstrating the arts? How are the arts going to survive.... on the other hand.... in the age of the youtube sharing of any art you want to look at, numbers are dropping. Maybe in the past we got more students coming to class just to see what the arts looked like. Maybe now the curious can see just how dull and boring most of the arts look from the outside...

Perhaps if we and our governments could see just how dull, boring and useless their secrets are....

Hmm I should go on and expand on these points but it's time to go somewhere secret and take some secret folks somewhere else secret.

You figure it out from the metadata. Or ask GCHQ in the UK, they're likely onto me right now. I'll leave my tablet on so CSIS can find me if they need me.

May 12, 2014

It's Shorts Weather Damnit

Sitting in the coffee shop with my daughter, calm before the storm sort of thing as we start moving in boxes of dishes and washing them and stacking them away in two hours, I realize I'm sitting beside an open door with my shorts on as the rain and cold air comes in.

But once I put those shorts on I really don't want to go back to long pants, socks and shoes, it's just too hard to go back to all that fuss.

Tradition is like that, it's mostly doing what you are comfortable with. Sort of the definition of conservatism, not wanting to do new things, or different things, seeking the comfort of what you always do. The wisdom of the well-known. This is the sort of traditional thinking that is seldom useful. It is also (fortunately) seldom harmful, after all I'm not going to freeze to death so no particular worry. The trouble comes in those circumstances where I can't make that distasteful admission that I dressed wrong, like when I get a ride up to class and have to walk back in the dark and the rain and I haven't had the forsight to grab a jacket and umbrella on the way out the door on that warmish afternoon.

Short term thinking, it's this way now so it's always going to be this way... and I'm relying on the Grainer's Gold dark roast to keep me warm. I was just talking about the land the University used to own in this town, big chunks of it are gone, sold off to meet a yearly budget crisis when the institution as a whole ought to be thinking in terms of a hundred of those years. That's two different "traditions". One says "we need money now and we're good until I get my next job", the other says "a big institution won't last if we spend the principle, so let's not spend our land just so an administrator can get a bonus". You know, I can say stuff like that because I don't work for the University any more, unlike the poor tenured prof at U. Sask. who just got fired and banned from the University for saying exactly that sort of thing. If you want to keep your jobs, don't criticize budget decisions folks, not allowed any more in the age of "shut up and do what I tell you".

That gets you directly to the budo way of thinking, right? It's Soke or the highway, we all agree with that don't we? But is that a good way for the art as a whole to go forward? One mistake from Soke and the whole thing is toast, with nobody to second guess or otherwise look at unexpected consequences, you get trouble. Back to our U of S situation, the prof was fired for "bringing the institution into disrepute" or some such... he made the institution look bad so they fired him. Really? And now because they got rid of a tenured critic, the problem is solved right? U. Sask. is now seen as a bastion of free thought and reasoned investigation right?

Damned press, they ought to be controlled, if only there were no information going in or out it would all be calm and those admin bonuses would just pile up as we make short term spending decisions that meet short term goals and who cares about the next generation.

It's easiest to just do what you're told, be the guy who does the same thing every day, put those shorts on without glancing out the door because that's the easiest thing to do for the next three minutes. Never mind that now I'm freezing my kintama off and mis-typing every third word.

May 15, 2014

All Arts are One

Musashi said that if you know one art you know all arts. Of course he didn't mean if you master swordsmanship you will be a good painter, but that you understand the process of learning. I've found that to be true and have privately graded my daughter into dan ranks as she has learned her violin and viola, and I have seen parallels between my photography and my budo over the years.

Watching a photography documentary recently I was struck with the difference between looking then and looking now. Today I opened my taptu application and scrolled across a hundred one inch high photographs set up in rows and columns. It took me all of 15 minutes while waiting to go for coffee. Contrast that with the description from Joel Mayerowitz who described living with a Eugene Atget print for hours, looking at it, trying to figure out why Atget took it. He turned it upside down eventually and he understood.

Compare these two ways of looking at photography, which do you suppose gains the viewer more? Depends perhaps on what you're looking for. Now compare this to how folks do their sword arts. Those who collect kata, who "know" their entire school curriculum in a couple of years might be compared (perhaps not too unfairly) with the rapid scanning of hundreds of photographs on the net. Just as I miss the extended contemplation of a single image on a print held in my hands, I also miss the extended examination of a single kata, the two hour practice of details, the savouring of a small angle of the wrist here, the twist of four degrees in the hip there.

A survey course in budo would be memorizing the movements of all the kata of the school in a few months. A specialist third year course might be spending a month on a single kata. Both teach something, one would place the subject in the wider world and teach rules of composition, the other would get you down to the bones of the thing.

What else should we understand about all arts from one art? All are taught by humans, certainly, so you should expect the same from all teachers. Some are egotistical, overly concerned with their status, rule-bound and irritating "call me maestro". Some are good teachers. The various arts are the same, and should be approached the same way. Find a teacher who can teach you and hang on tight. It's not about them and it's not about you, it's about the art and your practice of it. Painters should paint, photographers should photograph, swordsmen should swing their swords.

You survey the field, you understand what the past masters did, you specialize and you practice long enough to get it into your own bones so that the art disappears and only the practice remains. The masters I know tend not to quote from a book or repeat what others have said. The student says "what happens if" and the master says "try... ah that happens".

The student asks about a lighting diagram for a portrait and the photographer says "a what?". The music teacher plays the piece and then says "bow it like that". The swordsman says "ah, yes now you see, the hip has to move first here while the weapon has to move first there".

You learn the rules, you practice until you are the rules, you leave all that behind and just shoot "instinctively" because now you are "talented". S'not inborn, it's learned and there are no shortcuts except finding a teacher who can pull you along more quickly than you could learn by yourself. As Mayerowitz said of the photograph he was looking at "(sluuurp) that's delicious".

May 14, 2014

The Growth of Tradition

With the seminar going on it's a scramble to get everything organized. Not just tickets and van rentals and room rentals (moving in and out a cottage full of dishes and cutlery and a week's worth of food) and pre-registrations but t-shirts and food for the party and movie equipment for movie night and....

All this stuff accumulates in a long-running seminar and ours has been running for what, 24, 25 years? It was originally a week-long affair, split over two weekends, then it went to a single weekend in the spring (before high tourist season). At one point it was supposed to alternate between our Victoria Day weekend and the US Memorial Day the weekend after, but the Americans, who were close to 30% of attendance at one time all screamed at us not to do such a silly thing and make their wives divorce them. Then the American border closed down and the US got their own seminars started and so it became Victoria Day forever.

The first couple of years we had some backyard barbecue action and at one we had a small auction for the viewing rights to a new tattoo on one of our female students. Don't ask, I didn't win. From that start the auction began and built, the barbecue eventually becoming the Saturday evening catered dinner and auction event.

Movie night began just as suddenly, with a tape machine hooked up to a TV in the lounge Sunday evening. Next time I turned around it was a pot-luck / barbecue event where our members did burgers and hotdogs for everyone. Now, somehow, each year my cooker disappears from my house for the evening and shows up later, usually with a few pieces missing. When it gets too rickety to survive travel I buy a new one and otherwise keep my mouth shut.

One year preregistration was a bit slow so I told folks that they'd get a t-shirt if they signed up early for more than a day. Today I'm driving down to the printers and picking up three or four boxes full of shirts that I have to get up to the seminar.... along with a box of notebooks that I put together because last year someone thought notebooks would be a nice reminder to the students that they should be writing things down. Now it too seems to be a tradition (in that folks have asked what the notebooks will be this year... as opposed to "gee notebooks were a really good idea I need to remember to bring one next year"). Bring your own pens!

In all of this prep whirlwind you've got two or three people working daily to bring and keep it all together ahead of time, so if I seem cranky in the week or two before Victoria Day every year, think of it as PMS (Pre Meeting Shite) and accept my pre-apologies for snippiness.
But at the seminar another set of tradition kicks in, one that the attendees have created for themselves over the years. The old hands (and I suspect one or two of them have actually been there for every single seminar) have all fallen into jobs. Dave Green on the door, Doug Blue then Clint Cross, the Rochester crew on the auction (next year will be the third generation as Clint retires), the lunch and dinner crew for everyone, the juice and water crew for the sensei, the sensei van drivers, Kimeda sensei to cook and clean for the sensei in residence, the carriers of tables and chairs, the sweepers of floors, the setters up of the grading room... and of course every veteren of the seminar who tells every rookie that complains about this or that to "do it yourself and don't bother Kim". Seriously, a drink gets spilled or something and I hear some senior saying to some beginner "well go get a mop and clean it up!"

This is how the seminar gets done each year by a club of 5 or 6 members, through traditions of service that have grown up over the years as the attendance has grown. A workshop of 30 people I could do myself, one of over a hundred with two arts and 7 plus instructors would be impossible without all the amazing folks who have probably developed traditions I don't even know about.

You gotta love it. It's the Guelph Spring Iaido and Jodo Seminar and it's on this coming weekend from Friday to Monday. Still room on the floor.


May 12, 2014

Play the game, follow the rules.

My last post brought on some discussion of a rather secific nature as I used an example from Seitei Iai of the kendo federation to tell my general story. As a result, a question arose regarding institutionalization and the over-specification of an art form. (Can't cut and paste from a facebook post so I'm summarizing here).

This is a fairly common feeling about Seitei Gata, both outside the federation where folks who have left or were never in use the observation as a critique of the set, and those in the federation, such as myself, who get tired of the endless arguments over an inch here or there. As an example, I mentioned this discussion last evening and pointed out to my class that the specific movement I had used, doing saya biki on the chiburi in the kata Soete Tsuki, was not, despite what one hanshi had taught us a few years ago, a movement that was supposed to happen today. As I was starting to outline the situation I was treated to a tale of a drawn-out discussion in another club over which direction this non-movement was supposed to take. Not an unusual situation, a heated argument over which of two incorrect ways a kata is to be done. (Let's face it, in seitei you CAN be incorrect).

These arguments over seitei, especially amongst those who feel they have multiple instructors (and thus are free to disagree with the sensei who is standing in front of them) are depressing at best. Compared to koryu, this all seems a waste of time as there is one appeal to a question in koryu, your sensei.

But seitei is not koryu. It is a set of STANDARDIZED kata which is used for grading. While people used to speak of each hachidan having their own way of doing seitei, or of one region having a different take than another, the kendo federation no longer tolerates such ideas. It is of course this idea that there are multiple permitted ways of doing seitei that cause the arguments over which way is "right". The standards of seitei are taken more and more seriously now because, I feel, there is a huge push to ensure standardization in the ranking system across the world, including Japan. You can't have standard rank requirements if you don't have a rigidly standard set of kata being used. At least, not without highly skilled judges who can recognize similar abilities without resorting to check-lists of check-points.

I also suspect an underlying reason, reading between the lines of the last 10 years, a distinct movement to centralize control of the federation and that also would be easiest done by having a strict requirement for standardization from that central control group. Not any different than paying attention to a soke in koryu in fact.

None of this has anything much to do with combat effectiveness of using the sword of course, but it isn't about winning mixed martial arts tournaments, it's about gradings. If you are in the game, you play by the rules. If you want to grade under the kendo federation you do seitei like they tell you to do it.

All this may sound like I don't like the system much, but that's not actually true. I like seitei. Part of learning how to use a sword is learning that an inch makes a difference. I do a lot of partner practice with bokuto, if you stop a quarter inch above someone's head that's good, if you go an extra inch beyond that point, that's bad. If you move an inch off the attack line that's good, if you don't, that's another throbbing shoulder for the next week or two.

Nothing wrong with doing what the grading committee wants you to do, to the letter, just do it and pass or don't do it and fail. Hunh? why would you NOT do it if you're standing in front of a grading panel? To convince them with your brilliance that they are all wrong and your way is better? Do what they want and be done, seitei is actually a really nice set of stuff to prove your control of the sword because an inch is demanded and shown.

Maybe all that hitting of points will distract from learning the other lessons of the sword, but that's where koryu comes in. Learn the other stuff there from your sensei and both of you work at being precise according to the up to date book and pronouncements from the central committee in Japan.

The major flaw in this whole system is that gradings are not centralized. Your ranks come from your country not from Japan. At the moment there is only a set of standard guidelines from the FIK. Gradings are given by and from each country and are not passed up the ladder anywhere, there is no ladder, the structure is horizontal not vertical. There are grumblings about this, but until the FIK starts flying grading panelists all over the world (after, of course, a vote by the FIK to change the system radically) there isn't going to be much change. Which means that every student going for a grading should probably take a good look at who is sitting on their grading panel and show what that panel wants to see. No sense looking at the Tokyo panel, they aren't sitting at the table in front of you.

If you're going to play the game, follow the rules. The game is local, figure out what the rules are locally and don't be telling the panel they ought to be doing it like your other sensei in another country. It's up to your local sensei, the one in front of you every week, to know what the local panel wants. Do that.

Don't like playing games? I suspect most people are in the kendo federation because their sensei is in, not because the kendo federation rank certificates are extra fancy. I'm in because my sensei is in, it's not much of a decision really. But I have known several sensei who are senior to me who have left, and there are many who were never in, so if the standardization is a problem, if it feels just too restricted to bother, just don't play the game.

I was going to say that one can stop grading, but that might mean you would not be teaching your students what they need to grade, and grading is important to beginners. They want to see proof that they are learning, so as a teacher who has dropped out of the grading system you might find it especially hard to keep up with the current requirements. I don't say it can't be done, just recognize that if you aren't grading you have to listen extra hard for the correct checkpoints. Of course, not grading is also a really good incentive to not pay your dues to your federation and that actually means you have quit. You'll find that the membership requirement for almost every group everywhere is paying the yearly dues. No pay, no play, read your federation's bylaws, especially the unwritten ones.

Play the game, know the rules, play to the rules.

May 7, 2014

Stop Helping

Combined the iaido and aikido classes last night because there weren't many in either class. It worked out well since I am currently working on a set of sword kata for aikido, the second set I've developed actually, this one on empty handed entries. (The first set is about entries with a sword in your hand).

Don't ask me why I'm doing this, I don't have enough other stuff to practice I guess, so I make up stuff.

This is all about my favourite topic in aikido, the entry. The idea is that the various techniques folks are so fond of can't be done if you're not in position to apply them. That means being on the right spot on the floor, but also in a good posture. Hence the kata set which is sword against empty hand. It's either good posture or owie time.

The very first kata is called maai and consists of the sword side moving from the proper distance (any distance) to cut and stop above the partner's head. Said partner does nothing at all except serve as a target at the correct distance. Seems simple enough but it's one of the hardest principles in budo. You have to swing correctly at the target in the correct angle and to the correct distance if you want the kata to work.

No helping. Those who have done sword kata might have run across the helpful partner who will swing short or to the side of your head, forcing you to move further or not far enough or whatever so that the lessons of the kata are simply lost. I remember the first time I did some sword in aikido after a decade out of the art doing Niten Ichiryu and other such fun things where people try to take your head off. My helpful partner stepped forward and swung his sword two feet in front of my face, then got a puzzled look that matched my own as I just stood there looking at him. My body didn't figure it had to move so it didn't. Strange feeling all around, but I took it as a sign that my sword training hadn't been a waste of time.

So last evening we spent ten minutes learning how to reach the target from proper distance and then went on to the next 9 kata which involve the defender moving from target distance to a good position where a technique could be applied if so desired. If the sword cut is accurate this isn't much problem, if it's off to one side or, more usually, short of the target, the defender finds himself in a stretched out stance, leaning, or otherwise shuffling around trying to get into the correct position. Back we go to the first principle, don't help your partner, hit him on the head with the sword.

A good attack on the other hand produced a balanced, powerful, upright posture in the correct place with no hands or arms flopping around to get lopped off. This opened up all sorts of possible techniques which the more experienced students started noticing.

A bit less helping out and a bit more trying to hit the target and it may become safe enough to start doing some techniques.

May 5, 2014

Stop Helping

Combined the iaido and aikido classes last night because there weren't many in either class. It worked out well since I am currently working on a set of sword kata for aikido, the second set I've developed actually, this one on empty handed entries. (The first set is about entries with a sword in your hand).

Don't ask me why I'm doing this, I don't have enough other stuff to practice I guess, so I make up stuff.

This is all about my favourite topic in aikido, the entry. The idea is that the various techniques folks are so fond of can't be done if you're not in position to apply them. That means being on the right spot on the floor, but also in a good posture. Hence the kata set which is sword against empty hand. It's either good posture or owie time.

The very first kata is called maai and consists of the sword side moving from the proper distance (any distance) to cut and stop above the partner's head. Said partner does nothing at all except serve as a target at the correct distance. Seems simple enough but it's one of the hardest principles in budo. You have to swing correctly at the target in the correct angle and to the correct distance if you want the kata to work.

No helping. Those who have done sword kata might have run across the helpful partner who will swing short or to the side of your head, forcing you to move further or not far enough or whatever so that the lessons of the kata are simply lost. I remember the first time I did some sword in aikido after a decade out of the art doing Niten Ichiryu and other such fun things where people try to take your head off. My helpful partner stepped forward and swung his sword two feet in front of my face, then got a puzzled look that matched my own as I just stood there looking at him. My body didn't figure it had to move so it didn't. Strange feeling all around, but I took it as a sign that my sword training hadn't been a waste of time.

So last evening we spent ten minutes learning how to reach the target from proper distance and then went on to the next 9 kata which involve the defender moving from target distance to a good position where a technique could be applied if so desired. If the sword cut is accurate this isn't much problem, if it's off to one side or, more usually, short of the target, the defender finds himself in a stretched out stance, leaning, or otherwise shuffling around trying to get into the correct position. Back we go to the first principle, don't help your partner, hit him on the head with the sword.

A good attack on the other hand produced a balanced, powerful, upright posture in the correct place with no hands or arms flopping around to get lopped off. This opened up all sorts of possible techniques which the more experienced students started noticing.

A bit less helping out and a bit more trying to hit the target and it may become safe enough to start doing some techniques.

May 2, 2014

Choji vs Camomile vs Baby Oil

"Hey sensei, what should I be using on my shinken?" says one of my students.

Steel is steel, so anything that protects steel should protect a sword. Having said that, bluing or browning is likely not a good thing to put on a sword....

Then you get into "what's SUPPOSED to be used" on a Japanese sword.

I'm not a collector and don't expect the sword I use for iai to be around in 300 years so I don't actually care much what goes on it, as long as the rust is kept off. I have been known to use Burke's Gun Oil which is made by a student of iai in this area, we've got a bottle of the stuff in the dojo for anyone to use.

The things you want on your sword steel are those that are basic (as in simple and as in non-acidic), and that protect the steel from rust. You also want things that will not stain since we all like our shiny blades, that's why bluing or browning is out.

One thing nobody ever talks about is "sword water" for cleaning their blades. If anyone is interested, it's water that has been filtered through hardwood ash and it's used to take all that nice water soluble stuff off that the oil and uchiko won't.

Wood ash and water means lye of course, potassium hydroxide, which doesn't leave a salt when it dries like sodium hydroxide, especially at the concentrations needed, but will neutralize any skin acids you put on the blade. Sword polishers use washing soda or similar in the water for the same reason, to prevent acid and rust. Don't use washing soda, it dries to a nice white salty mess.

All those horrible tameshigiri scuff marks on the sword that uchiko and oil won't take off? In our box we've got some rubbing alcohol for those who cut their fingers instead of their targets and that works a treat for scuffs. It dries off fast (don't pour it into your tsuka) and then you re-oil.

Bent sword? Put it over your knee, it's what the polisher will do... it's steel.

May 1, 2014

Chasing Rabbits.

Last weekend we had a few folks from other dojo in for a seminar. Since I was not their sensei I of course had to go into a talk about how you ought to pick a sensei and stick with him. This seems a pattern with me, do anything I can to undermine myself.

The idea (pick a sensei) is actually pretty simple, and has nothing to do with loyalty and lineage and all that stuff. It was a seitei seminar (kendo federation iai) and our "lineage" is the kendo federation, our "teacher" is the kendo federation and our assessing entity is the kendo federation, so one might think there wouldn't be a need to pick a teacher.

To a certain extent, one would be right. When you start you are learning which foot in front of the other and move the sword to this position. Anybody who is familiar with the curriculum should be able to teach that, all it takes is reading the book. The program supports this as well up to about third dan when all the learning of this foot exactly there and that hand exactly thus should be learned. This assumes, of course, that all the various instructors one has, are teaching the same thing. If you have three sensei and they disagree on where your hand should be at the end of nuki tsuke, or on the precise angle of kesa giri, this is a problem best solved by ignoring two of your three teachers (pick one). But we will assume all the various instructors have read and understood the book and their instruction is interchangeable.

So up to third dan a student can say "I like Joe's nuki tsuke and Fred's cut and Al's noto so I'm going to use them". After that, things change as a unified style becomes expected. In other words, the nuki tsuke, kiri tsuke and noto had better start working together as a unified whole, rather than as a chimera. What's the easiest way to get a unified style? Take it all from the same teacher, and that's what you should do for the next couple of grades (up to 5dan).

After that it moves away from the physical and into the principles and it may just be a good idea for a student to get some instruction from another teacher. Different viewpoints can mean a deeper understanding of the why and when. It may also be that a student gets a bit deaf and sending him to someone else might just mean said student "hears" the correction he needs.

It's that middle time where a student is perfecting the technical movements that a single teacher is probably best for him, not out of loyalty or lineage, but because you won't get "the meal of style" if you're chasing more than one rabbit.

April 29, 2014

In 20 Years

As I read through an awful lot of posts by people I don't recognize on the net one of the thoughts that most often pop up in my head is "talk to me in 20 years". As a matter of fact, I say that to myself in class too, when a student asks something that I know won't be a question in a few years, but that's a slightly different thing. Well, maybe not, my student is being taught and gets to ask the question or make the statement of his knowledge since I'm the one teaching him. The stranger on the internet isn't my "problem", so I can simply say to myself "talk to me in 20 years if you still feel that way". Otherwise it's not my responsibility to try to educate. Time will do that, or they will be gone from the scene.

You have no idea how many experts I've seen disappear from the net. Or how many "schools" come to that. You might think that in this day of stunningly easy access to knowledge it would be impossible to "found" a new ancient martial art and have folks believe that you met some old dude two streets over who made you the soke of his family art... but folks don't really check all that much. If the dojo is next door and the classes are fun who really gets worried if the teacher is legitmate or not? The internet is likely a source of trouble more than a saviour of young folks about to be deluded since the kids who follow the newly minted soke will probably hear that he's "a fake" when they go online to brag. Up to then they're happy.

Of course the school might be perfectly fine, just an offshoot of some other art and not claimed to be anything else. There's lots of people who "start their own art" and it survives while they're alive and then it's gone when they are. Think Bartitsu if you want a good example.

The way to "found your own school" that seems to make sense to me is to simply teach. Your students will follow or not. If one of them goes on to teach the same thing and then his students teach... you've got a lineage and somewhere around the 3rd or 4th generation they may think about putting a name to it.

Inventing a new school and declaring yourself some sort of soke is fine, dandy, and somewhat cart before the horse. You aren't the founder of anything at all unless you've got great-grandkids calling you that. Like I said, talk to me in 20 years, or two generations.

April 28, 2014

Who watches the watchman

Driving to the cafe I noticed an unmarked police car (you can tell by the pusher bars on the front) with an entitled looking fellow in a cheap suit driving. Assumptions? Sure, always.

This led to a few thoughts about the assumptions and presumptions of those in authority.

Which led to a few thoughts about my own authority as a senior rank in an organization.

Which always leads to a self-analysis of my recent behaviour to check for feelings of priviledge.

And Terry Pratchett's Sam Vimes popped into my head. Sam is the Captain, then Commander of the Night Watch in Ankh Morpork on the Diskworld and he has a very useful mindset for a budo student and for anyone in authority. A practical mix of right and left wing beliefs about "the people", and a massive sense of duty. Asked who watches the watchmen he answers "Me". Asked further who watches him he answers again "ME!"

Think about that. These days we have.... strike that, it's always been the case that those in power and those who wannabe who help them will do whatever they can get away with, not because they figure they can get away with it, but because they don't know they're doing anything wrong. If I'm not caught I'm not in trouble. The latest way of describing it is the "Rob Ford Defence" (If I'm not in jail I didn't do anything wrong). It's the "dad" syndrome, as in "dad didn't say I couldn't do it so I can" or, if God doesn't want me to do it he'll let me know (through his divine representatives on earth, the King and his thugs, er sheriffs). So if you are in a position of power, just do what you want until someone tells you you can't, and the higher the position, the less likely there will be someone to tell you you can't.

Enter the Watchman, which I used to call the Monitor. If you have a small piece of consciousness that looks always at what you are doing, that "good angel" it's been called, that sits on your shoulder and watches what you are doing, you will act as your own authority. A couple of things have to happen for this to work. The first and most important is that you have to have a sense of "right and wrong". The quotes are there because we aren't talking about legislation of any type here, not the local parking bylaws or the ten commandments, but a real sense of what is the correct action in this situation. This is internal, not imposed. It's what you know to be the correct action as opposed to what the grannies over the fence figure you should do. It's ethics not morality. Those who figure you need religion or the world will descend into barbarism have no idea what I'm talking about. Those who get confused by folks who say you need God to be Good will understand what I mean. Don't bring up psychopaths here, think about what type of person needs externally imposed rules on how to live.

How do you get your very own Watchman? First, look at your own selfish and greedy behaviour. Whenever you come to a fork in the road stop and think about how you decide which way to go. Understand that you must decide, that you do decide, even if it's only to decide that you will just ape that month's "talking points" from whatever dogma you choose. Next, understand that whether you "get caught" or not, makes no difference. You make the right choice or not and the person who decides isn't the one with the biggest gang, it's you. Personal responsibility, the kind of thing that gets you into the martial arts as a spotty teenager is what we're talking about. By definition there will be no figure of power and authority to protect you when you are getting beat up behind the barn, that's down to you. If you can figure that out as a 14 year old, you are well on your way to having your own Watchman who will stamp on your internal bully when he shows up.

Sam Vimes has that internal watchman, he IS that internal watchman. Conflicted, he never really knows if he's going to be called onto the carpet or not for breaking some sort of rule. Uncertain, he knows he's just winging it, with only a sense of what's just instead of what's legal. Judgemental, he decides what's needed for balance at the time, rather than following some sort of formula. Clear-eyed, he has no illusion about what the world is, he's never met "the people" he just knows what he should do.

Think about the eternal conflict between the politician and the judge. The politician believes in an eye for an eye because "the people" believe in rules and formulae. The politician believes in mandatory sentencing and the rule of law (the law that he creates of course) and punishment. The judge on the other hand believes in justice and correction and will often resist mandatory, formula-based decisons. Formula can be done by computer let's face it, given enough CCTV camera coverage and scraping up of internet metadata chatter, we ought to be able to decide who's breaking the rules by algorithm and drop those who fit the profile right into the prisons without anything in between. The judge believes in relativism, in looking at the situation, in "judging". It's what you are doing right now as you read this, you are thinking about it, judging the merits of one world-view over another, relativism vs steady-state.

Think you're a steady-state, rules-based fellow? You figure your budo kata will answer all the life and death questions on the battlefield? Or are you a relativist who looks at the situation and responds as you should?

Think about what you do, ask yourself why you do it. If it's for the wrong reason it's likely the wrong thing to do. Sam Vimes will let you know.

Apr 26, 2014

What's it made of?

You work with the Japanese weapons arts and you soon run across wood envy. Here's a little bit on woods I wrote long ago and ran across recently. Presented here just to get the information somewhere I will be able to find it.

Sunuke is "evergreen witch hazel" or "winter hazel" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distylium), not the usual witch hazel you'll find in North Americal and Japan which is Hamamelidaceae sp. photo here http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/122272/

Biwa is Loquat, which grows in North America so be careful not to bump yourself while picking the fruit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loquat

Most fruit trees are tight grained and hard, they grow slowly, but it's often difficult to get a good straight piece to work with. They can be brittle.

Locust (black and honey) are nice hard woods, but with open pores so can crush like N.A. red oak.

For Japanese Oak (Quarcus mongolica) it seems to depend more on where the stuff is grown and how fast it grows than the colour. I've seen "white" and "red" oak on the same suburito. I've seen both colours with really wide voids and I've seen both with really tight grain. In my experience the North American oak closest to kashi is "evergreen oak" or "live oak". Our usual white and red oak are a bit different. I once bought the entire stock of evergreen oak from my supplier, only to find out that it was all rift cut, no good for bokuto but great for furniture. Gotta build some tables one of these days to get the stuff out of the shop.

I've made quite a few osage weapons but as with the fruit trees, it's hard to find decent wood. It's a junk tree, not harvested commercially so you don't find a lot of it around.

Here's some stuff on woods from a while ago.. woah, like 12 years ago... ouch! http://ejmas.com/tin/tinart_taylor_1100.htm

Apr 24, 2014

Language and Culture and Budo Oh My.

Seminar Season is here and you want to learn a Japanese martial art at a seminar with Japanese speaking sensei?. What's the best thing to do? Here's two ends of the continuum I suppose:

Just want to learn the art? I don't think any sort of translator is necessary, and in fact any translation can often be a hindrance. What you mostly need is to learn "here", "not here", "this way" "not like this" and so on. Too much talk and the brain gets in the way of the eyes. Paying attention is MUCH more important than knowing what sensei is saying, which is usually pretty much what you hear every day in the dojo anyway.

If you want to learn Japanese culture.... move to Japan, it's a lot more efficient than learning martial arts and Japanese over here. Imagine someone in Nagoya trying to learn North American culture by studying, say, lacrosse or basketball and taking English lessons. A skewed version of the culture at best.

If you're interested in what sensei has to say about the art (and who isn't) than you get along with a translator as best you can. To learn the esoterica of budo or to catch the subtleties of this or that philosophical argument you'd better have a translator that is not only fluent in both Japanese and English (and I mean fluent, not someone who can tell you how to get to the train station) and is familiar with the esoterica that you're trying to discuss. Otherwise it isn't going to work. It's not going to work if you're learning Japanese yourself either. If these things were easy to communicate we'd already know them... and those things that are easy to communicate... we do already know. If a Japanese sensei has a problem explaining a point of philosophy to another Japanese, it isn't likely to get across to us at all, no matter how well we know the language or how good the translator is.

Of course I could be wrong about this and Japanese may actually be a simple to learn but highly accurate language for getting ideas across and I am just too dim to understand that.

One thing about the practicalities, in this area we've always been taught by and had native Japanese speakers in the dojo so the problem of culture and translation has never actually come up. The Japanese in Canada seem to see no great need for us to become Japanese or to learn the Japanese culture in order to gain the benefits of the martial arts. It seems to be enough that we're sincere and that we work hard. What things we need to know (pour beer for sensei, shut up and practice) we pick up pretty easily by association.

Best thing is to simply relax about the esoterica, practice what you're shown and read books for the rest.

April 22, 2014

Beam me up, Scotty.

On the way to the cafe I switched from CBC 2 to CBC1 because I got annoyed by a commercial. I switched from CBC1 to a commercial classical station because I didn't want to hear some watery mp3 interview of some dude talking about some crisis or other. There's always a crisis, been a crisis since I was a kid and under threat of thermonuclear war. I'm tired of commercials and crises.

Logged into facebook this morning because I wanted to tell folks about the seminar next weekend. Noticed all the videos were self-starting, can't find a way to stop them so I'll just switch that channel too. I don't mind spending ten or twenty seconds hunting for a way to stop them but that's about as much time as it's worth to me. I have the feeling that FB is just about to fade. It's had a good run but now it's getting the focus group treatment I suspect.

So I switched to the net and decided to confirm my feelings that there are no martial arts books being published these days. Wrong on that account, wrong big time. Amazon tells me there were something like 230 books published int he last 6 months. So it's me ignoring them all (with a lot of justification now that I've scanned through them) rather than them not being pushed out there. It's all "second verse, same as the first".

I can expect what, maybe another 20 years of good health, (I should live so long), and for several years now I've been cutting down on the inputs. There's as much in my head as I want in there, I don't need to know about the Royal Visit to Australia or the latest deadly fighting secrets of the MMA-Ninja-Arnis masters (by latest we mean do 6 months of each and then take the best and leave the rest). Ive got wood to grind and several magazines to publish and at some point should think about getting some exercise for this crippled old body. The "internet" will store all the information I need about Britley or Lady Googoo or whoever, the little wars that will never go away can take care of themselves without me reading about them. The leadership of a third of the country will continue to try to fiddle the electoral process to make sure they get and stay in power... and the 19 year olds can wake up and realize they can stop it all. Me, I just want to create rather than consume.

So beam me up to some quiet place where I can get ten minutes of interesting music and no telegraph boys knocking on the door with news from the continent.

My point? Hey, 19 year olds, get out there onto the streets and do something about it. It's your job, demand that the world be a better place, get thee to the dojo or the ashram and make yourself a better person, fix the mess that our generation didn't. Get the idea of ZPG entrenched in your brains (go look it up) because since I was a lad... no since the beginning of the 20th century, the biggest threat to the human race has been antibiotics. The farmers and hospitals who are breeding superbugs are doing their best to solve the problem from one direction, but that's a painful way to do it. ZPG man, that's the ticket.

Me, I'll be in my window watching all the busy drivers stop over the stop line because that's how you get the light to change faster, and I'll be laughing as the bus comes around the corner forcing them to back up into the guy behind who has pulled right up because that's how you make the light change faster.

Beam me up, I'm ready for the probes little grey men, it will be a nice change from 24 hour non-news channels.

April 22, 2014

Teaching beyond the details

Very occasionally (like when a 6dan test is coming up) I find it necessary to make a special effort with a student to let them know just how good they are. This seems like it should never be a problem, who doesn't know how good they are, but a dedicated student will never be happy with their own level, and will tend to think they're terrible. This is not the attitude to take into a senior grading.

In iaido, I will try to pull senior students up a notch by facing them and doing alternate kata. In this case I don't move my technique down to allow them to follow (that's "teaching mode" where all points in the kata are demonstrated cleanly and simply), but rather I crank it up as far as I can 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, but nevertheless it's a training tool.

In non-contact arts where it's see/do the usual practice during class would be to keep it simple and clean, but when trying to encourage the student to another level, 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.

In a more contact-oriented kata practice like jodo, 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 by their kiai. This makes for a continuous, incremental improvement which often means the students will progress faster than in solo arts like iai. What I mean is that in iai, if the instructor isn't paying constant attention and making correct suggestions to a student, it's easy for that student to stay at the same level of practice for years. After all, what feedback do you get from waving a sword in the air? As long as they figure they're hitting all the points in the book, what further effort will they make?

Do these methods work? In my case, yes. 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, the 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 (in 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. Of course, one of the things that make me angry in class is a junior student who is easing up when they shouldn't be... I'm not dead yet.

Now, it's one thing for a student to go past you physically, age takes its toll after all. But what we want is for a student to go past on "spirit", on "energy". There are various forms of energy in a class, and one of those forms can be stolen. Ever had the feeling a student was stealing your energy and getting in on you? I have some ideas there. Are you competing in tournament when the lower grades do this or are you 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 instructors.

Think about energy the next time you're in class as a student and then as a sensei. Pay attention to whether you're giving or stealing. Most importantly, teacher or student, aim to beat sensei on his best day, don't wait for him to become feeble and beat him at his worst. Anything less is disrespectful.

May Seminar is coming up! http://seidokai.ca/iai.seminar.html Get yourself out to steal some energy.

April 19, 2014

20 year shots

Why in the world does Kim get so upset if there's an open bag or some students in the background when he's taking shots for his books?

Something my students may not get, but they don't know that books last 20 years, and every photo in them will be examined by a critical reader. I think one of my students did got that today when she looked at a poster from some long-ago seminar and said "That's a shot you don't want people looking at for too long." An open sword case, half emptly tomato juice bottles, and in a mirror, the guy filming the very impressive stance of the sensei. Sensei looks fine but the photographer is sitting with his legs splayed all over the place.

So why does your sensei talk about kigurai and hinkaku and fukaku and all those things that really mean having a dignified, commanding presence? Since the concept predates photography by a few centuries, there must be some benefit outside looking good... but what more do you need than to suppose that one of your students is sneaking a photograph that is going to be out there in 20 years time?

When a photographer looks for someone to shoot, he tends to gravitate toward people who have presence, that elusive thing that students keep asking me how to "do" about a week before the exam. They know they need "it" but they don't know how to do "it". You don't do it, you have it and if you want it, start by looking around yourself. If the dojo looks like your bedroom did when you were 13, and you aren't picking it up, you don't get it. I'll often walk into a class and start sweeping the floor. One of my students will instantly come over and try to take the broom away. If sensei isn't supposed to sweep why would you leave the sweeping until sensei starts doing it? Other students might yell across the floor "I just swept sensei". If you're trying to get brownie points for sweeping you don't get it. If you figure I'm criticising your sweeping skills, you don't get it. You sweep because that's how you tidy your thoughts, you straighten up the shoes in the entrance because that's how you straighten up your spirit before coming into class.

What? straighten up other people's shoes? That's their responsibility isn't it? Yes it is, but I don't know what your point is. The shoes are messy, tidy them. There's garbage in the hall outside, pick it up. It needs picking up, so do it when it needs doing.

And if everyone is doing that, there should never be any clutter in the background of a photograph.

April 18, 2014

Books Galore.

Nice to have my tablet back to write during coffee. Only had to buy Brenda one of her own to get mine back. Lesson there somewhere I think.

It's been a productive winter on the writing front, with 7 iaido manuals done and on the website... I think, better check that they're actually up there. One thing I've learned is that you can't sell stuff that folks don't know you have. Or put more simply, advertising works.

Yes, I had to use my fingers, 7 books. Amazing what you can do with the technology available now, including shots for the manuals while teaching. The old way was to set up a special time, get out the remote trigger or organize another person to push the button and send hours going through a shot list. Now you just get someone to go through the kata, set the camera to multiple shots and have at it. Hardly any effort at all compared to my first book which my mother illustrated by hand. Then there was no easy way to strip photos into a document. In fact, the original pages with cut-out and taped down drawings ought to be in a box somewhere. Now it all pops together in minutes, I love the whole process.

What was an effort was finally finishing the 8th book two days ago after 20 years "work". The commented Go Rin no Sho translation is finally done.. well has been declared done at any rate. Thanks to Colin Watkin for the final ass-kicking that got me to close off the project before I got too much older. The book ought to be on the sdksupplies.com website by the end of today or next week at the latest. The production end of things was a breeze, finish the final edit, convert to pdf, email to printer and have ten copies by the end of the day yesterday.

Heading to the cottage to see if the upper deck has collapsed with the snow load this winter, and if it hasn't maybe I'll start another book. The cottage is where most of these projects start these days, it's cut off enough that I get several hours of peace and quiet to think through what I'm doing.

Whch is what I want to talk about today, attention span. Most folks suggest that kids today are all ADD and can't concentrate on anything. I've never really believed that, my son can watch anime for 12 hours straight and can play video games for twice that. There's no lack of concentration there, he will even skip meals if we don't scream at him. Before someone says a video game is all jumping around and disrupted concentration, so's a book. I used to read sci fi for days on end, I can still get lost in Terry Pratchett's Diskworld for a week, and just because the body isn't flopping around doesn't mean that my mind isn't going a thousand places at once. Concentration isn't stillness, it's focus on a task, even if that task involves doing several things at once.

The problem isn't a lack of concentration, it's the way we choose to live. We allow too many calls on our attention, and we choose to address them. Phone, text, email, and youtube/TV/trolling the net are all attention-grabbing distractions from what we're doing. They are things that we choose not to ignore and so they break our concentration.

Now I'm sitting at the moment in a noisy cafe and am having a perfectly lovely bit of concentration while writing this. I choose to ignore the conversations around me, and I can without being rude. The noise itself isn't a problem, no kids and their attention-snatching mid-range pitch, no horse laughs, just a drone that covers up my usual tinnitis so all is good.

Put me at home and I'd likely get a start on this but end up moving to the net to look for a chunk of the Gorin book to include, or a photo, or I'd get caught up in chasing down the 12th translation of the book to see how close it is to what we came up with... No it's actually more peaceful here where I can't get to all the other distractions I allow at home, including feeling guilty for not being in the shop grinding wood or painting the trim in the house that the kids were supposed to paint four years ago or...

You get the picture, now go write your own book.

April 17, 2014

Data Arashi

My sensei says that we aren't allowed to go out and test the techniques of our sword school any more against those of other sword schools. He says that those days have been over for a few generations now, and we are supposed to read and research instead.

He says that by reading what the old guys said, and researching into things with our own students we can preserve the sort of understanding that comes with trying this stuff out with sharp swords.

So that's what I do.

And while I'm reading I read about all these secret techniques that are only shown to the highest level students and I read about all these folks who are really mad that old videos of past sensei show up on the net, and it makes me wonder.

Are these secrets held back for the seniors because we may need them to use on a student who has turned evil and needs to be defeated at the end of the movie with the super-duper-screw-punch? Are we to keep our ancestors' swordwork secret in case we decide to go all dojo arashi on the school a block over?

Or does a secret make us feel special? Is an upper level technique simply a way of saying to a student "there, now you've got the special technique along with the certificate, the bokuto and the founder's special moustache cup so go forth and see if you can keep this damned school alive for one more generation".

Or is grampa a bit of an embarassment with his wonky knee and busted elbow? What if some kid says his swordwork is crap? Oh no, what could we do? Well we could turn the comments off on the youtube channel I suppose, but leave gramps up there for those of us who are researching to look at... please.

Same with your website, it may be out of date but that's exactly what us bookish types want, old information, stuff that isn't up to the current revisionist standards. You have no idea how comforting it is to see a hundred year old photo that shows folks doing the kata the same as we do it... or even better, showing them doing it differently. Combine that with a fifty year old video of their students doing it "all wrong" and we have something special. Now put that together with some writing from two hundred years ago, put some dates to names, figure out who taught who and you've got a much deeper appreciation for the school as a living, breathing thing rather than some glass wind-chime ready to be shattered at the first breath of cold winter wind.

Across the street is a mom with two toddlers, a stroller and a dog. The kids are trying to climb the ice to push the crosswalk button for themselves and mom is trying to juggle the lot so that nobody gets hurt. It takes longer than mom slapping them back into the stroller and doing it herself, but those kids will do well I bet. Teach your kids how to cross the road, don't forbid them to do it without you.

What you earn is always deeper than what you're given, and since we can't go dojo arashi, go data arashi instead. Put your archive online and let someone else match it against theirs, that way both of you earn brownie points and learn things. I suspect that after all the trouble and sore legs that Grampa went to, to make that old super-8 film he'd be well chuffed to know that it's had 4000 views in the last month. Tough old begger that he was, I bet he'd have something to say to the 15 year old kid who called his technique crap as well. Maybe even a good cuff around the earhole.

March 28, 2014

Modern Samurai and old broad shoulders.

Thinking more on Musashi and his impact on society, when I came across "Samurai on Wall Street: Miyamoto Musashi and the Search for Success" by Cameron Hurst in EJMAS http://ejmas.com/jalt/jaltart_Hurst_0101.htm

Written in the early '80s at the height of Japan's economic power it is a very good analysis of the cult of "secrets", that search for simple answers. Check it out in light of an aging society and a higher yen that has affected Japan for the last decade or so.

I think it could also be read in light of the martial arts tendency to revere "secret teaching" and look for the "unbeatable technique" or art.

It's also a perfect example of my own aging, I published the article and certainly read it at the time but was completely surprised to find it through a search of the net. "I've forgotten much more than I now know" is not bragging, it's an admission of a brain too full of useless stuff from reality TV. My students and friends are amused by my refusal to keep up with the latest social tropes but I swear I'm just afraid of what will drop out of the back of my head when the newest grumpycat photo goes in the front.

I suppose I could say that all my old knowledge is getting distilled into a new, more efficient form, but in an age of companies whose whole busness model consists of buying patents and copyright and suing anyone who can't afford to fight back, I'm afraid that old synthesis model of human advancement could lose you your house and get you thrown in jail.

Hurst's article certainly stayed with me, I read things there that I could have written, yet I don't remember the article itself. I could be accused of plagiarism or sued for copyright infringement if I were to get too close to his language without attribution. The result is that anyone who wishes to write must spend time checking sources. This checking can take more time than the work produced, even in a computerized world... the same world that makes it so much easier to find copyright violations.

How much of our limited lifespan needs to go into making sure our ideas haven't been already fenced off by lawyers? Back in the day theft of a musical theme, a turn of phrase was a good thing. You stood on the shoulders of giants (go ahead Newton, sue me) but now we have to start and stay in the mud for fear someone has trod the path before us and put up a toll gate.

Who does benefit from copyright? I just put out 6 new books and hope to make a little bit of money on them since I spent three or four months away from the shop to produce them. What's my recourse should I find them floating around on the net in one of the various torrent or book source sites? None at all, I can't afford a lawyer to go after anybody, only the big publishing houses have that option, or someone with an independent source of cash to throw around. I put copyright notices on there to prevent those same publishing houses from stealing my book and making a bazillion dollars on the sales, for the rest of you folks I rely much more on the polite request on my website that says please don't steal it whole.

But by all means, read it, absorb it, use the information to advance the arts and you'll never ever hear a peep out of me. I stole the stuff from those who came before me, now you steal it from me. Just don't let on we're doing it.

March 18, 2014

Five Venn Diagrams

Trolling google scholar once again, I came up with a paper titled something along the lines of Toward a Translation of the Go Rin no Sho. The first few pages were devoted to a discussion of whether the "rin" should be translated as ring, sphere or realm. My personal preference is for "venn diagram" since the information in one section interpenetrates with that of the anothers. After that the concerns continued to "scroll or book" for "sho" and "chapter, scroll or section" for "maki". Of course I don't have the paper with me so I may have got the specifics wrong.

Does anyone out there have a problem with using any of these terms at all? Does the information conveyed change much if we say "five rings" as vs "five spheres" If we suggest that "realms" links us to some idea of a buddhist world-view consisting of five ways of thought, does this help us? It doesn't help me unless I'm a buddhist scholar, and I'm not. Realm means as much as ring to me.

We can get so balled up in the definitions and the language we miss the information. Trees and forests and all that. After all, it's a book in five sections, call them whatever you want.

Yes you say, but we need an idea of what Musashi was talking about and precise defintions can help. Ah, perhaps, if we have some sort of common external reference system that the definitions can link us with. Unfortunately that's not very likely. I'm no more linked to the world of Musashi than I am to the world of Shakespeare. Less actually, Shakeseare wrote for a general audience.

Musashi wrote for a student. The Go Rin no Sho may have been intended for one read and then destruction, at least that's the suggestion from some researchers. A single successor who allowed a couple of copies to be made at the request of Lord Hosokawa.

The common suggestion that a translation should be made by a "student of the ryu" is hopeful, but let's face it, 1645 is a long long time ago. I've been practising the school for going on 25 years now, and I know a couple of things about the kata and a couple of things about other Japanese sword schools of comparable age. Those give me a certain frame of reference with which to approach the text but I'm afraid it does not help me understand the references that Musashi and his student shared. Some things I get, I know what the modern interpretation of the five stances look like in the Santo ha line of the school, I know what the kata attached to those stances look like in the Santo ha and I've seen what they look like in the Noda ha line but I have to admit that these two lines don't match up exactly and I freely admit they don't line up with the translations at all. There are kata in the book, there's no doubt about it, but I can't justify any sort of shoe-horning of the modern kata into the original text, believe me I've tried.

On the other hand, there is a lot in the book that does ring a bell these 400 years later, and arguments over ring vs realm don't help much. We have to use our modern frame of reference and apply it earnestly to the information behind the language, apply it to what Musashi was trying to say to his student. I promise there are no secrets, just the plain and honest advice of a teacher to a student. Nothing would have been hidden because nobody else was intended to overhear. There would have been short-hand references but nothing that a linguistic analysis would be able to winkle out using the national decryption computers.

I taught a jujutsu of the sword seminar yesterday, it dealt with some kata from an iaido school that work inside the range of the sword and with the sword in the belt. We also dealt with some sword taking and sword retention, and at the end we did a demonstration to promote a Niten Ichiryu seminar for next month. It was during that demonstration that I understood the way I practiced Niten gave me the mindset that it takes to stand unarmed in front of a swordsman and have the arrogance to think you can take the sword. Does an accurate translation of Musashi's writing help me with this? Maybe, probably, but what helps a lot more is the way my teacher taught me to do the kata. I re-read Musashi's writings regularly and they say something more every time I do, but so do the kata and I practise them more than I read.

I also read whatever I can find on my other arts and they all speak to each other as they rattle around my head. My frame of reference is the same as Musashi's student, but both of us got "something" from the Go Rin no Sho without worrying too much about the semantics. We might have different views of the same mountain but I'd bet we both put one foot in front of the other on the way up.

My Niten practice interpenetrates my Iaido which interpenetrates my Aikido and my Jodo. Venn diagrams.

(There is a Niten seminar in Guelph next Sunday March 20, and another in Peterborough April 15 (or somewhere around then) Email if you want to attend.)

March 17, 2014

The Anti-commercialist

Right now as I write there is another book coming off the printer, one I didn't intend to write really, it's on ZenKenRen iai (seitei) and it includes sections on safety, the meaning of the kata (what they teach rather than just what the opponent is doing), a set of 18 kihon exercises, some tips on teaching, some definitions of terms, a bit of grading stuff and some other things that instructors might want to know. It started out as a short essay for my students who teach, and sort of grew out of pamphlet form into a hundred pages so there's iaido manual number 11.

In other news, I just noticed that while I put up pdf versions of manuals number 1-5, I forgot to put up manuals 6-10 on the website, but I promise you there are hard copy versions sitting on the shelf waiting to be mailed out or picked up at a seminar. Just email me if I don't get them online when you decide you have to have them.

I will have copies (both hard and pdf) at the "jujutsu of the sword" seminar coming up this next Sunday in Peterborough. At least I hope I remember to take some along. If everyone shows up who has said they would it will be a good crowd and I'm looking forward to it. I'm hoping an appreciation of the sword inside three feet will help everyone's iaido.

Now if I could just get back to the four or five books that are 80% done and "only need a bit of tweeking" before the usual end of month stuff catches up with me. Not to mention the May seminar...

March 11, 2014

Cold Pizza

It always seems to be iaido grading time, and I'm getting questions on how to pass the gradings in May. One of the most common is "should I put off changing my grip until after my grading"?

So you're going to show us last year's iaido are you? If you were a pizza joint would you like us to judge you on last night's pizza? Some folks like cold pizza but I'm pretty sure they prefer the warm stuff from the night before.

There's never going to be a time when you aren't changing something about your budo practice, the grip, the stance, the hips... If you aren't improving things you will be trying to preserve what you've got or eventually, adjusting things so as to lose what you had at the slowest pace you can. Yes, despite what you think, you don't get better up to the day you die, you get smarter and you learn how to compensate for the weakness.

So please, for all involved, don't put off trying to get better on the off chance that you will get confused at a grading. Your "best" isn't what you were doing last month, it's what you do today, and that includes the continued efforts to change and improve your sword grip. Trust me on this, it will be much more distracting at your test if you are trying not to do what you're working on. If you stop working on getting better a couple months before your grading in the belief that you're going to get confused by better technique during the test, you are wasting a couple of months practice.

Testing is training. The best time to finally figure out some adjustment to your technique is during a grading when you are so focused on not feinting you relax enough to let the changes work.

March 11, 2014

Knowing vs Knowing

We've got lots and lots of beginners who know all about why they're doing what they're doing... they just can't do it. Thing is, they've got English speaking sensei and English language books to explain it in detail, and they devour it all but until they've spent the time with their mouths shut on the floor... well you get the idea if you've spent a decade in the arts.

My smarter and more senior students actually tell me to shut up and let them practice when I start to EXPLAIN things. ALL my native Japanese students have tuned me out when I start to talk, without exception.

Mar 7, 2014

Preconceived Notions

I started toward the newspaper rack to pick up our right-wing paper just to see what they were saying about the latest political nonsense when I stopped myself. It would be a waste of time since I already know what their take on pretty much everything is. Their opinions haven't moved for decades and aren't likely to.

Same with a lot of the martial arts I practice. A number of folks have been lamenting that the various web fora and email lists are very quiet. I think a lot of that has to do with the shear volume of information out there which is identical. It's all fixed, all set and only has to be learned or read, which most of the serious participants have done. What else is there to be discussed? After all, my arts are kata based which means they never change, you learn them and that's it, you know them and all that's left is to practice them for the rest of your life.

Photography is the same, all the various sites I have visited over the years have converged on the rather boring conclusion that the best shot is the one that is designed into the top-end slr cameras. It's an 18-megapixel, tack-sharp, colour-saturated, raw-processed, noise-free piece of boring. Or it's a faux-wetplate filtered plate of fast-food, so there's two styles out there, two self-contained groups.

Two martial arts styles as well I suppose, kata and freestyle, with freestyle being as close to the rules as you can get without being thrown out for breaking the rules which means not much room for opinion either way.

I suppose it's always been such, it's easier to think what others tell you, to be the nail that stays down, to repeat the "talking points" to oneself and others regardless of evidence to the contrary. The "core" always prefer to believe rather than think. The strong-man leads and we must follow, right up to the point where we realize he's not actually related to us and doesn't really have to take care of us like Dad did.

The ancients handed us a perfected set of fighting patterns that take care of all our combat needs. All we have to do is follow the formula and we'll be good in a scuffle. If we do kata number eight, or if we ground and pound we'll be victorious, right up until the point when four of his buddies armed with baseball bats jump into the fight.

Canikon knows photography right? They put all the buttons and menu choices there so that we can use them to become successful photographers by doing what they've built into the camera. It's all good until we slowly start to realize 18 megapixel is a bit more than we need to look at a tack sharp image of a sunset on our cell phone. Hey, you don't think maybe they did the megapixel thing because it sold more cameras because everyone knows megapixels are what you want? Nah, surely not. And having 256,000 iso is as essential to good photography as shooting 22 frames a second up to the storage limit of our memory card.

The preconceptions sometimes break down and we're thrown back on creativity, thought and innovation. Eventually, if we're unlucky, we end up acting on the evidence rather than on what the collective decision of our similarly-minded, carefully-selected chatting group holds as a belief.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had some sort of practice that, say, for instance, allowed us to experiment with new methods of movement, gave us ways to play with distance and timing in a safe and nurturing manner so that we learn how to think for ourselves and decide case by case, rather than simply recite what we've gulped down from the fountain of group wisdom?

Well never mind, time to read that right-wing newspaper get me my talking points for the day. Tomorrow I'll read the left-wing.

Mar 6, 2014

Pickled Koryu

The internet knows that koryu are small secret fighting arts that are headed by a soke and should be preserved for their inherent value. Well perhaps that is true for some arts and for some students of the arts, but I've never been too sure.

One head per art? As far as I know one fellow's got the papers and whatnot for my iai koryu (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu). Do I follow him? No. Have I ever practiced that style of MJER? Yes. Do I practice it now? No. Is this a problem for me? No. MJER is big and even small arts don't stick together forever. I've got an iai lineage back to Oe Masamichi but it's not the same line as back through the current soke.

How about the art itself, should it be carefully preserved intact as it has been for the last 400 years? Let's talk about Tachi Uchi no Kurai, one of the partner sets of MJER, should it be preserved? Umm, which version? I have, in the course of my training, learned 3 separate and distinct versions of the 10 kata. Could probably find my original notes lying around somewhere I'm sure. So what do I teach if asked? The ones in Mitani's book of course, it's big and on my shelf and so I don't have to go tear the house apart looking for my notes. Since it was published in a very nice book with pictures, it's also the version that a lot of people standardized on for the same reason I'm sure, it's handy. I'm not too fussed if the other versions disappear into history, although I do teach them to my own students because I find the variations useful to teach specific concepts in a graduated order, (as a result my personal Tachi Uchi no Kurai is a set of 17 kata and often some variations thrown in).

I'm not too worried that "martial arts get lost" since they get lost all the time. What's the inherent value of a martial art? The true value lies in the practice not the existance of the techniques in someone's notebook.

Want to help perpetuate small and rare martial arts? By all means, go for it, find them and learn them and teach them. Unfortunately, I'm not too confident that they will be found and preserved by us Western folks. We used to run a koryu seminar that featured many different arts that are actually being taught here in the west, some of them quite small but instruction is available. I think the best we ever did was 40 students which actually is pretty good but not something to crow about when you consider the population of North America is what, 5x that of Japan? If the small arts are to be preserved it's likely going to happen in Japan... actually it more or less has to. Is there ever going to be a case where an art dissappears from Japan, gets preserved in the West and then returned to Japan?

Yeah. No reason it shouldn't but it's not likely, we in the West are not going to preserve any Japanese cultural treasures for the Japanese. We may absorb them, we may inherit them and continue them for a few generations, but they aren't likely going back once they're lost over there.

This stuff exists as long as someone practices it. When nobody does, it disappears and nobody notices (because nobody is practicing). The world keeps spinning regardless.

Mar 5, 2014

The toughest opponent

"In Iaido ... each move is with positive action, but it is so difficult to perform realistically for immature students including myself because all the opponents are imaginary. This is why a performance quite easily resembles a complicated sword dance. An ancestor stated, artistic technique is never ending. The time to finish training is when one dies." -Kono Hyakuren 3 March, 1936.

I've got to agree, I have a very hard time finding that imaginary opponent, and doubt I've ever actually seen the fellow. It's one of the things that make iaido so very hard to learn, and one of the reasons I put so much emphasis on the partner practice these days. With a real model at the correct distance I can begin to imagine where that imaginary opponent is, and perhaps make my solo iai a bit better.

Beyond that, by studying the jujutsu forms, and aikido I can begin to learn how to maintain constant and correct pressure through my posture. Which is sort of ironic considering that I began my study of iaido in order to work on my posture for aikido. There is a constant back and forth between a solo art which allows detailed analysis of posture, and a partner art which allows constant feedback to identify where that posture is weak.

This should really be getting easier to work on, with our access to video recording and to multiple budo. Here at the University we have one of the best martial arts programs I've seen anywhere with multiple arts and multiple instructors of 30 years plus experience. Practicing more than one art is easy, so there is no real excuse not to excel in several.

Yet there are folks who remain fixed on iaido, with little interest even in the partner kata of their own school. The important thing seems to be finding the formula for passing the next grade, rather than learning how to defeat that imaginary enemy.

Perhaps I am being unfair, I didn't know this particular problem existed until I hit about 20 years of practice. Up to then I figured I saw Mr. Invisible just fine, but there's a difference between sight and insight isn't there, between ken and kan.

Mar 4, 2014


I was at one of my favourite seminars last weekend, the Welland iaido seminar which brings together the senior instructors in the area. This year it was Ohmi sensei, Criuse sensei and me for 7dans and Dave Green and Carole Galligan for the 6dans. A lovely time and great organization, both from an administration point of view, and from the structure of the seminar where the students break into levels and the instructors rotate between groups. You get to teach three different levels in a day and it's really quite a lot of fun. Not to mention educational for someone like me who has only small mixed classes. I seldom get the chance to teach to the level, sticking mostly with overall concepts and then individual help. It's actually easier to say only what the group needs to hear and much more satisfying for all I think. No distractions with instruction you can't use or don't need, more concentrated in other words.

At the seminar I was able to give Ohmi sensei the 5 new manuals I managed to get done. He made a comment about them later that I corrected in a hurry with the following story. Back in 1987 or so Ohmi sensei was teaching me the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and I would occasionally show up with a book which I had written and my mother had illustrated. His comment at that time was "I teach you a set and a week later you turn up with a book".

Well, sure I suppose I did... probably not a week later but it didn't take long to produce them, simply because I wasn't really writing, Ohmi sensei was. They are nothing more or less than my notes on his teaching. (And as accurate as that sort of process is, so don't blame him for my mistakes).

As a result, I can't take credit, really, for the books, they aren't mine, they are my teacher's. Whatever is in them is a result of his learning, his research, his teaching and I've never thought of them otherwise.

Perhaps he would say that his knowledge is only what his teachers gave him, but it was he who gave to me so as far as I'm concerned, he's the man. Maybe some day my students will write something and say "I got it from Kim" and maybe then I'll feel as if it is mine, but somehow I doubt it. I may be speaking but mostly I'm "spoken through".

That's transmission, that's the lineage. If you go somewhere and get a certificate or some such qualification from a teacher who is not your own, it's really not transmission, it's certification. It's that teacher saying "sure, you know such and such". He may recognize it, but he didn't teach it so it's not really transmission, it's not teacher to student.

Transmission goes beyond technique. Any MJER teacher can comment on my technical knowledge of the kata in the school. Those are pretty standardized, with style differences being easily recognized as such by anyone who's been around a couple decades. Transmission is certainly the kata, but it's also the background, the feeling and the style, the approach to those kata. The books I gave to my teacher last weekend were not, by and large, my notes of his teaching, much of what is in there is the result of my research into the school, of teachings received from other instructors, and inevitably of influences from my other arts, but the kata were from the MJER lineage and so my understanding of them is rooted firmly in the school, and the school as transmitted to me by my teacher. In other words, even if my teacher does not know or practice some of the sets I have written about, in a very real way I learned them from him.

If someone feels that I've made a mistake, that's on me of course, but I'm betting the critique will be as much about style as about fundamental problems with the mechanics. I'm betting that my basis of understanding is pretty good, it came from a pretty good source.

Mar 3, 2014

Tall but short.

You can't be exclusive and inclusive. Yet there are many out there in the koryu who bemoan the lack of students but on the other hand insist that the lineages stay pure, the videos stay private and the students stay quiet. There's also a lot of fascination (probably from those who aren't "in" but read a lot) with blood-oaths and other paper. I know it's always been that way but after a generation of exposure to the west you'd think the secret society aspect would be wearing a bit thin.

Me, I made a promise a very long time ago that I would teach anyone who shows up in front of me. That's the way my teachers taught so that's my system. Nothing to hide, nothing hidden, it is what it is as the saying goes. (Where did that come from, I've heard it a lot lately but I can't remember who started it, or is it one of those recent cultural memes that I missed?).

I keep running into comments about some old iaido films that have shown up on youtube. "Those were obviously never meant for public consumption" is the common opinion, but son, I beg to differ. The age of 8mm film was not the video-saturated world of today. It took some serious effort to record something once upon a time, and any instructor who posed for such a film would likely be delighted that his iai is still being watched today. The effort put into recording back then meant these were not un-prepared bits of stolen vid on someone's cell phone. There would be no missing the camera whirring away in the same room. Nothing stealth about it. So why would a major sensei want that film suppressed? His students maybe, certainly. Who wouldn't want a record like that all to themselves? "I've got it so I've got the inside info and you don't". I recall a time when one of my sensei found out that I had a fourth-generation VHS copy of an 8mm film of one of his sensei. His comment was that the film was held quite firmly by the family but I somehow got hold of it in VHS so it was copied over somewhere along the line. Perhaps for a special family friend? I don't know and don't much care because I'm pretty sure everyone is now deceased, while the film has made its way to younoob for an entire new generation to watch. I really hope it stays there because it's worth a look for anyone in my line.

Secrets? Special techniques? Not really, I am actually pretty amazed that these many lines of iai perform the kata in pretty much the same way, and with the existance and distribution of these old films, the slow drift apart of various lines will slow down considerably. Isn't this what we all want? To pass along the kata unchanged to our students? Won't publicly available film help with this?

Sure, few people want video of their mistakes out there, just because I find my own video-taped boo-boos funny is no reason to assume others want to see theirs, but ALL video is bad? Silly really. We have a great source of history in our hands, but it's digital, and so perhaps even more fragile than that 8mm film. One copy on one person's hard drive and all it takes is a single crash to lose a valuable record. Even putting it in "the cloud" won't save it if there isn't a culture of downloading and backing it up.

Of course, all this secrecy makes sense if we want to be exclusive and practice rare arts in windowless dojo with bans on cellphones. But seriously, how do we brag about how great our arts are to those "outside" if they never see what we do? Secrets get no bragging rights.

Me, I'm happy to see any video of my silly-arse flailing around. The more the merrier.

Feb 28, 2014

PDF ebooks at SDKsupplies

OK, after several hours of trying to get my head back into programming and updating the website, there are now buttons where you can get a pdf copy of the Niten Ichiryu manual, the jodo manual and the first five big book of iaido manuals. The page is : http://sdksupplies.com/cat_manual.htm

We will still be selling the hard copies for those who want to open them and drop them onto the dojo floor but the pdf on a tablet is kind of nice from a bulk point of view.

We also have all the back issues of TIN/JJSA in book form in PDF and those are available if you email me. Similarly the next five iaido manuals covering the partner practices of MJER/MSR are being printed but if you're dead keen you can buy them in the PDF form for $20 apiece. Just email me.

The net is a strange and interlocking place, Brenda told me we had too many tanjo hanging around so I put a sale on them that did nothing for months until just recently when we got four orders for ten tanjo and a video within a week. Someone must have posted something somewhere and now I'm heading out to the freezing shop tomorrow morning to make more tanjo. Needless to say the sale did it's job and is over as of this morning. Not to say the dojo set isn't a good deal without the sale

I keep having a similar sort of conversation with folks about budo membership actually. Folks say there's no interest in iaido and jodo let alone kenjutsu, and I would agree to an extent, but don't tell me that in an area of, say, a million people we can't pull in more than 20 or 30 unless you can assure me that all those million have been told there is such a thing around. I don't think we're anywhere near maxed out on interest anywhere. Advertising, that's what we need.

Everyone tell everyone they know about sword and send the interested to a club. Not just your club, but any club close to them. The more folks that get into our arts, the more membership for everyone.

Feb 26, 2014

My own little world

I live in my own little world, a place where budo matters to me, where I get excited when I see two or three new faces at a seminar, and where I feel like a slacker when I'm not producing some new material for future generations to look back at and see how we did it.

It's a nice place, my little world, lots of nice people who are into similar things. Not a lot of agonizing over politics, economics or sports teams but lots of laughs. My cheek muscles start to hurt after a weekend seminar.

So what's wrong with that? I have seen the endless cycle of disaster about to wipe out the human race, I am from the nuclear extinction generation myself, the one where every Thursday evening my town would test the air raid siren which would tell us all to duck and cover because the world was about to end.

Now, after the global freeze, the global warming, the climate change, the toxic soup, the global starvation and all the rest of it, I'm a bit worn out with worrying. I'd really much rather just see what I can do to make the lives of those around me a bit more fun.

Oh I haven't forgotten the concern I had when I was 12 or the conviction I had when I was 18 that I had all the answers, I still work toward a better place, I just do it by creating my own little world where learning an ancient fighting method can make you a more productive and thoughtful person. I'm part of the ripples from the splash in the water that happened 400 years ago, and is still spreading out.

First, I work on myself. No, I only work on myself, and by hanging around other people who like budo maybe they start working on themselves and perhaps we share a bit back and forth and others come and hang around for a while.

My little world is a place where budo is to bring everyone together, not split them into camps. It's warm and fuzzy and I like it there.

Seminar time, we'll see how long warm and fuzzy lasts.

Feb 26, 2014

Old style paper vs new style paper

It happens every time I get around a grading, I start thinking about what rank means and the function of grading. Mostly I talk about the kendo federation system, but there are other systems out there.

Some folks talk a lot about "the koryu system" but that's kind of like talking about "the writing system". Lots of different systems all more or less related in a common function.

The representative language here would be English, and the representative koryu grading system? I don't know, how about levels one through five. You can name them anything you wish, how about "joining paper" "achievement level one" "achievement level two" "level three" "highest level" Too vague, how about "knows set one" "knows set two"... "know-it-all".

To achieve each level you must pass some minimum standard of achievement in a process determined by the person or persons who are awarding the level. You may or may not get a piece of paper which states that you have received the level.

So what is all this wishy-washy description actually suggesting? That grades are grades and tests are tests. They define each other, your grade represents the test and the test determines the minimum standards of the grade. All of it is dependent on who is giving you the grade and all of it is independent of other grade systems which may or may not have the same name for the grade level.

It comes, in the end, down to you and your teacher. He will probably be the one to decide if you are ready to receive a grade, or to have the chance to receive the grade. The grading may or may not be done by a single person or a panel.

And on and on, but let's look a bit more closely at the koryu system. If you are in a koryu you have a teacher and he has a teacher and it will go on up the line to somewhere. Your line may be in an art that has multiple lines in it, and they may or may not be associated. What other lines of your same art do with their gradings usually has nothing to do with yours.

OK even more specific. I do iaido, I practice Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. My teacher is Ohmi Goyo who studied under Sakamoto sensei from Osaka (the Shumpukai which was the Yaegakikai under one of the headmasters of the school... Kono Hyakuren perhaps? who studied with Oe Masamichi. I don't have my information handy). He also studied, much later, under Matsuo Haruna sensei who was in another line of the school, going back through Yamashibu, Yamamoto and then Oe Masamichi. Two lines back to Oe Masamichi who wasn't even the only person doing "Tosa iai" at the time, there were other lines but his is a big presense so far enough.

All of that is interesting, but my teacher is Ohmi Goyo and that's pretty much it for practical purposes. That I can trace the line back to Oe Masamichi is perhaps comforting and tells me that I am in a lineage and gives me things to research back into the past, but in a very real sense, it's meaningless to me. My teacher tells me if I'm correct or not in my movements, I trust him to pass the kata along to me as unchanged as they need to be to pass along the knowledge from the past, but it's Ohmi sensei who is adjusting my hand position and telling me how to connect my back foot with the tip of my sword in a meaningful way. Oe Masamichi is not in the room when we practice.

So back to gradings, how do I get graded in my Koryu? Some people would say I don't. I will not be receiving the "kongen no maki" from Ohmi sensei as I don't think he ever got it from anyone else. So are we both deluded and illegitimate? Umm perhaps but as I have said before, get on the floor and show folks your rank, so I'm sure either one of us would be happy to show you our ranks in MJER. (How many folks reading this know what a kongen no maki is? Is it a problem that I don't have one if you don't know what it is?)

But how are either of us able to teach if we don't have a "teaching license" you ask?. Ah, there's the crux of the matter, and the answer is "just fine". The paper licenses that are handed from a teacher to a student are backed up by nothing much at all. There is no overarching koryu organization that supervises koryu licensing, there's only a lineage to be traced back. Being in the kendo federation both Ohmi sensei and I have a teaching license which is backed up by a world-wide organization, but of course that is in the kendo federation iaido, not a koryu. It doesn't cross over in any defined way at all. The kendo license matters in the kendo federation which is it's own "lineage" but for our koryu purposes here, only demonstrates that licenses are backed by as many people who recognize them and no more.

No, my MJER license to teach is that my teacher has said I can teach, or to be even more precise, he has never forbid me teaching MJER. If you think that is too wishy-washy and would rather that I had a big paper certificate on the wall, I could probably make one myself, or I could ask my sensei to make one and I'm sure he'd be happy to do so. Would that make me a better teacher? No of course not, but it might reassure any students coming in to the class who had heard that licensing is a good thing.

However, the most likely result of someone wanting to see paper on the wall would be me suggesting they continue their search for someone who has paper on their wall, or in a drawer or whatever. I might even have some ideas on who might have some paper.

Why would I not then go to those folks and get my own paper? I've given the answer above actually.

Koryu licensing may or may not be formal but it's always there. If your teacher says you can teach you have permission to teach whether or not he gives you paper. If there is no organization to say otherwise, that permission is going to stand and yes, it was a testing process whether or not it was long term observation and a casual comment or a three day intensive examination of all the kata in the school along with a thousand page thesis on the history and philosophy of the art.

No matter what, there's the levels "can practice" and "can teach" at a minimum. The rest is just more points on a line.

Feb 23, 2014

What Rank are You?

When we started iaido there were no grading systems in place. My sensei simply said "someone wants to know your rank, just get on the floor and show them your rank".

I haven't found any reason to pay much attention to any other ranking system since that one is the real URL (universal rank locator). Having said that, I spend a lot of time talking about other kinds of rank with folks because I am involved in handing the stuff out. Folks really don't have to tell me they figure it's very political, I'm the politician trying to get it done. Much of the time I'm in negotiations to get the grading approved, and then in negotiations with other folks to get panelists to sit. Thankfully there's enough administration structure in place that I don't have to actually line up chairs and tables much any more, or keep track of who passed and who didn't. I even get involved in what's on the test itself and on what weight one should apply to this or that aspect of the training. Note please that all of that is negotiation. In no case do I get to simply say "this is the way it is".

Ah for the good old days when I could simply say to a student "you know everything I know so get out, here's a bit of paper for you in case anyone wants to see a bit of paper". I got to do that with my self defence course, and I suppose there's nothing stopping me doing it with my various martial arts. Except I'm in an organization because my teacher is in that organization, simple as that.

If you teach under an organization, you still issue solo certification. Think I don't? By signing my student's grading permission form I am saying "I think you are this rank". It's certification of rank/level folks, recognition of minimum standards achieved, not some sort of divine gift of ability, that you get with your rank certificate. Now, if a few of my peers don't think you deserve your rank at a grading, or if you mess up the order of the kata because you aren't good a tests, is that any comment on your ability and knowledge according to what your sensei says? No it isn't. If I sign your request to grade and a panel says you don't pass, it's that panel discussing things with me, not a comment on you. (Or if you screw up the order of the kata and that's a mandatory fail point, it's a test of your ability to stay calm and remember the kata assigned or some such thing).

Having said all that, if you've hounded your sensei into letting you grade because you have the hours, and he lets you grade to get biffed in the nose because you need that biff on the nose... That's your lazy teacher letting his buddies do his work for him. It's perhaps also an indication of what he thinks of the grading system (if he doesn't care about grading why not let anyone grade?) Or perhaps it's an indication that he doesn't care what his peers think of him (wow your students only pass half the time, you must be a crap teacher).

In the iaido and jodo sections around here we get some discussion of seitei vs koryu, certification systems, administration vs instruction and all sorts of wonderful things to think about. The bottom line for all of it is that grading of any type involves somebody's opinion, either your instructor, his boss, a bunch of bosses or whatever. It comes down to what is tested and who is judging no matter what sort of system you set up. If you join an organization of any kind you automatically put yourself under those rules. If you don't like the silly rules you have two choices, quit the organization or ignore it. Yes you can ignore an organization simply, just don't grade. What changes? The amount of paper in your drawer I suspect, not much else if your goal is to learn stuff from your teacher. As long as your teacher has no problem with you being ungraded.

As for your teacher? He likely has some use for the organization which is why he's in. Can't think of any reason why he'd be in an organization if he didn't have a use for it. If the irritation becomes greater than the usefulness, there's a door over there.

So what rank are you? "I'm the rank that piece of paper on the wall over there says I am!"
I can't read Japanese, what rank are you? "I'm a nanadan!"
I don't speak Japanese, what rank are you? "I'm a seven dan!"
Who's Dan? "No I'm the seventh level up on my scale"
What's it go up to "Eight"
So you're a big shot? "No there's two or three levels above me"
From seven to eight? "Yes we have this other ranking system"
Umm so the guy in my town who has a six dan is under you? "Dunno what organization is he?"
Iaido federation. "Nope, we have nothing to do with each other, different organization, different rank systems"
But he does iaido? "Yes of course"
And you do iaido? "Yes I do"
So who outranks who?

Like I said, go out on the floor and show what rank you are.

Feb 20, 2014

Moving on Up

The comment: "If we don't have a higher grade we aren't taught the stuff that is taught to the higher grades".

In practical terms, there actually is very little of the upper stuff in seitei gata instruction, it's all detail for all ranks for us in the west. Mostly because the majority of our numbers are at 5dan or below, which is the end of the detail stuff and beginning of the riai (which is really and truly just the fundamental stuff). Detail can be taught in riai and riai can be learned from the details so again the easiest is to stick with the details. It's a whole that should not be divided, but unfortunately often is.

In Canada we become instructors too early, and we upper ranks rarely teach classes of 4 dan or above (because they are teaching in their own classes, assisting in ours, or just plain ignored during class since they are just fine at the 2dan stuff we're teaching), we let them learn the riai on their own.

Again, this system is mainly continued because it's easy. It is difficult for any instructor to hear something new, especially if it contradicts what they have been teaching or thought they knew. An instructor must first and foremost believe they are correct before they can correct others. Wishy-washy doesn't cut it with beginners, their BS antennae are always on high so an instructor must have an ego and be able to insist they are right. Being "wrong" is not an easy thing for a 4dan who has students, but it is also not easy for the 7dans to hear things either. We all develop the wax of authority which we ought to clean out of our ears once in a while so that maybe we can hear something new.

Having a higher grade so that you can move next door to the other class becomes a goal after a while. I get all sorts of requests to move to the "next level" in seminars, and if I can get away with it I let them go. That's the easiest way to show students that either they are not missing anything secret or special (those two are not the same by the way) or that they are not ready for the next level.

Why do we split seminars into levels? Because we actually are trying to teach more advanced stuff to the advanced students. What is more advanced? Well beginners learn footwork and big shapes, intermediates learn details like where to stop cutting when you cut someone on the face and stop at the chin. (In other words we are teaching people how far from the floor their own chin is) and for the highest levels, we are often teaching them how high from the floor their chin is so that they can teach their own students how high chins are from floors. In other words, you step next door to the next group and you might be getting the same information at a faster pace, but the real difference is that you're getting a different instructor (if it's a seminar with multiple groups).

Many years ago I noticed that our top instructor at one of our yearly seminars had abandoned us top rank folk and moved on down the line to the beginner group. He really liked teaching beginners, probably because teaching us upper ranks was like hitting his head on a wall to get to the other side. I spent a lot of years trying to figure out how to get from my "top group" class down into the beginner class. The grass is always greener of course.

Feb 19, 2014

Details and big pictures and what's underneath.

The comment: "beginners are not sticking around because we are concentrating too much on the details"

Think of a building, there are the architectural details that make it beautiful, there are the overall proportions, spaces and materials that make it useful, and then there are the foundations that few people see or understand that allow the whole thing to continue existing without collapsing.

It's unfortunate if folks are getting chased out by the basics. An obsession on seitei gata (standardized forms) and passing grades is not good for keeping students. They like the grades but they don't want to be judged on tediously repeated detail. Who wants to see endless fretwork on anything but a cuckoo clock? There are a couple of reasons for this over-focus on detail, I say over-focus because the detail is part of seitei for a reason, but too much is always too much. The first thing that comes to mind is that detail is easy, it's easy and lazy because correcting someone's kissaki two millimeters, or making a distinction between an angle of three degrees is easily done but lazy because it's meaningless. There are experiments to see how accurate people can be with actual targets and some of the folks who don't get the exact angle while swinging at thin air will hit a target with ease. This weekend we took bokuto in pairs and split newspaper repeatedly into smaller and smaller pieces. Those holding the paper were not hit on the hands even when the paper was inches wide. (in other words, half to a quarter inch clearance). All levels of student but all equally accurate.

Detail is also easy since "it's in the book", making an expert of anyone who reads the book, provided of course, the student doesn't read the book too.

The instruction we get from Japan tends to emphasize the details, they are, after all trying to improve seitei and teaching from the book which is the authority by agreement of everyone.

But it does not have to be. Seitei can be taught like koryu, it can be used to demonstrate and teach the fundamental principles of the sword. This can be done without losing the details but it takes a lot of knowledge and a lot of thought, just as koryu does. The fundamentals are never easy to teach and there is no outward reward for bothering with them. If your success or failure at a grading depends on how well you perform the details to the panel's satisfaction at that instant, those details become the driving force of instruction. If, on the other hand, the judging panel is looking for a deeper understanding of the fundamentals, if they are looking for iaido that "makes sense" then missing an angle by three degrees (perhaps because of a locked shoulder) but having a cut that is backed up by proper posture and tenouchi gets a pass, then that type of instruction becomes more valuable during a teaching session.

People speak of gradings being superficial because of a focus on performance as a dance in front of a panel as vs grades being deep if handed over for long-term performance by a sensei without a grading. In other words you get it because you deserve it. Both have problems that can be addressed by thoughtful judging. Both can be done together. Both are subject to abuse by judging that is not impartial.

But back to keeping beginners. I am forming the opinion that we should add a couple of kyu grades which are used to put students on a koryu track before we introduce seitei at 1kyu to start them on their way to kendo federation gradings. If we start with koryu and teach it systematically, they will move along a path of big shapes and big ideas through many kata (which keeps beginners happy) and will be graded (which keeps beginners happy) so that they have a deeper knowledge of the fundamentals before being thrown into the details. This is how I learned, how most of the seniors in the federation in Japan learned. There was no seitei for years and you learned it with a solid basic knowledge.

As it is now, you are thrown into the world where swinging the sword doesn't matter as much as stopping it at an exact height. This does not make sense to beginners and they are right, it isn't the point. Stopping at chin height with not even three cm leeway is not actually very functional in a combat situation, but it is impressive I suppose, although not if you break your posture to accomplish it.

Feb 18, 2014

Pampered Much?

As my daughter would say.

Got off the plane in Vancouver and straight out the door due to no checked baggage because I'm stupid and didn't get the email I guess, so my weapons are back in Kitchener.

But never mind, six hour flight and I'm here in the hotel in Vancouver with a bottle of Granville Island chocolate imperial stout in my hand, it's a BIG bottle from 2012, a limited edition that I just looked at and realized was 8.4% but chocolate so who can tell?

Like I said, pampered much? These guys are great.

Yowza, chocolate.

From -30 to 6 above, and apparently it was 11 yesterday. Not only that but Calgary is above freezing so the next leg of the trip is going to be pamper city as well.

Doesn't get any better. I just hope I've got something for these guys, so I can return the favour. Thing is, I'm so far down my koryu rabbit holes I'm not sure I can do justice to the seitei stuff that brings me out this way. Most of the clubs here have other koryu roots than mine, so I'm nervous, being so much more comfortable with a bokuto than an iaito in my hands these days.

I did spend a few hours on the flight reading some ZNIR judging and teaching advice, and my first duty out here is to sit a jodo grading and then the seminar (YES! get the grading out of the way and then do the seminar! Thomas you're a genius.) That ought to get me into kendo federation mindspace.

Ah I'm sure it will be fine, once I start doing Seitei it will feel just like home cooking. Same as Niten, we are moving into that back in Guelph, and it's just like flannel sheets on a cold winter night... so comforting.

My point? I've been learning new kata and looking at video on youtube and checking out new kata that look pretty cool but you know what? You need to go home with the one that brung ya.

Shu Ha Ri (protect, break, leave) It's a spiral, not a line. Go back go back go back. I don't honestly know why I was reading up on the Vigny cane fighting system today, it's nice but nothing there I don't get from Tanjojutsu. Really, nothing, distance is the length of the stick meeting your head, there isn't anything more than that.

Like I said, pampered. Home cooking. Comfort food.

Feb 15, 2014

Seitei is Not for Starting

Just finishing up the Bangai Den manual with a chapter to sum up the MJER core techniques and extract some meta-information from the school. -- What, is it surprising that a kata guy looks for patterns?

At any rate, the core kata are the 4 sets of solo practice and three sets of sword striking and in all those kata (60 plus) all but 10 of them feature the exact same chiburi. There are two chinagui and seven or eight ochiburi in the Omori Ryu but that's about it, all the rest is "yoko chiburi". Realizing that, I went looking for the others and didn't find them. I looked because I do the ZNKR Seitei kata and expected to see them there.

Look at the ZNKR iai from a beginner's point of view, where a different foot forward means a different thing to memorize. What do they have to learn about chiburi?

1. Mae - ochiburi (migi)
2. Ushiro - ochiburi (hidari)
3. Uke Nagashi - chinagui
4. Tsuka Ate - Yoko chiburi (seated)
5. Kesa giri - hasso chiburi
6. Morotezuki - Yoko chiburi (standing)
7. Sanpo Giri - Jodan chiburi
8. Ganmen Ate - Yoko chiburi (standing)
9. Soete Zuki - soetezuki chiburi
10. Shihogiri - Jodan chiburi
11. So Giri - Yoko chiburi (standing)
12. Nuki Uchi - Yoko chiburi (ushiro)

Looking at that I count 7 different chiburi for the original 7 kata before you get to a repeat. Out of 12, I count 9 different ways to remember how to do chiburi. Is it that important?

Three (two actually) different levels of Tosa Iai (MJER/MSR) plus a few other schools for extra effects like a rising cut on the draw (go find that in MJER) and you've got something that ought to be introduced well after you have learned your koryu.

Wait, where did Seitei come from? A bunch of folks who were experts in koryu already. Who's in charge now? The hanshi, most of whom are probably 70 or 80 which means they were in their 30s or 40s when Seitei got going, which means they also learned their basics in koryu long before they even saw Seitei.

Now? Now buddy comes into class and wants to grade and his teacher wants him to grade and so we jump right into Seitei Gata. I keep hearing folks saying that they have to get sandan or some such rank before they are allowed to start learning koryu. What? Koryu is some sort of difficult thing to learn or some sort of treat, a reward?

I fall into that trap myself, if a new student comes in as gradings are approaching they get thrown to the Wolves of Seitei and good luck. No gentle master of Omor Ryu for you, here's a couple of beginner kata and now you're in oku iai with multiple attackers!

Nope, Seitei is not for Starters, and we ought to fix that.

Feb 12, 2014
Link to Videos

For What It's Worth

Thanks to Richard Schwarting the free videos have found a home on youtube instead of messing up my bandwidth and size restrictions on my various websites that aren't supposed to have bandwidth or size restrictions.


Richard even put them into playlists for you. Have fun and since it's youtube I doubt there's a problem with bandwidth.

Feb 12, 2014

What it costs is not what it's worth

For your continuing update, I have the photos stripped into the Bangai Den book, number 10 in the iai manuals set. Yay. It includes the four kodachi kata from Daikendori along with six or seven "extra things" that hang around the school. It's interesting that every single list I looked at on the net and also on Wikipedia included the "bangai no bu". So how do we justify calling the things "extra" when they're included in everybody's practice?

They're just another set of kata these days, especially when everyone has access to the net. What? Another lost kata? Quick let's get moving and find it, gotta be a vid out there somewhere! I admit that lately I've been the worst of the lot, it's like I'm a sandan again, looking for that next kata that's going to reveal the secrets of the universe.

That's actually why we spend so much time down various rabbit holes on the net, we're curious monkeys and we are convinced that out there somewhere is something that we haven't seen before. I don't want to think how many evenings I've fallen asleep looking through blogs in search of some new photographic style for the magazine ( 180mag.ca ). I wake up with keyboard face and think to myself "I need an editor damnit, someone to sort through this stuff for me. Someone with good taste (mine) who will give me back the hours and hours of same old same old compressed-range, over-sharpened, instagram-vignetted portraits I've lost.

That's me of course, I'm the editor who's doing that every month (except this March because I'm gone for next week). So what's that worth? Well it turns out there are two answers to that. It's worth nothing at all since the magazine is online and free. It's also worth nothing at all because I have no advertising or sponsorship so I make no money from it, never in the ten years of its existance has it brought me a dime. (I continue to produce it for the same reason I continue to teach, habit and the participants appreciate it.)

On the other hand it's worth quite a bit, I've spent thousands on studio space, camera equipment, website hosting, editing equipment, model fees, show production and who knows what else. Then there's my time spent looking for and inviting photographers to contribute, doing the interviews and html coding the magazine. No I don't just tap a button and zip it goes onto some social media or other effortlessly. Ugh. That way lies mud and every cliche in existance. That way leads to re-tweets of stuff everyone else has already seen anyway, and that way leads to not knowing who is behind the image.

What it costs is not what it's worth.

Which brings me back to the manuals. Way back when some of you were just starting to walk (the early '90s to be precise) I wrote the first manuals, got my mother to draw illustrations and had the things photocopied and cerlox bound by the same guy who's still doing it today. At that time I figured that I'd pay $20 for such a manual, and so that's what I charged. They cost about half of that to produce and it took a bit more to mail them so I never made much off of them.

Today it costs a bit more to make them and a hell of a lot more to mail them so the price has gone up. I make even less than I did at the beginning but what can you do?

So now I'm thinking about ebooks and digital delivery and I'd like other folks to think about that as well. If I were to PDF these things and deliver them digitally what should I charge?

Well I don't have to pay to have them constructed, I don't have to pay to have them delivered, "all that is free" as I've been told. It's not of course, our service poorviders are making money on both ends of the fiber but never mind, it's a hell of a lot cheaper shall we say.

So what's my price on the manual if it doesn't cost much to sell and deliver? Wrong question I figure, it is never about what it costs, it's about what it's worth so what would you pay for edited organized information on your sword school? Something that someone else has spent 30 years working on, something that someone else has worked hard to make understandable and learnable? Consider what the total costs of producing them might be, and divide by the potential buyers out there...

Not what does it cost, because nobody would pay that price, but what's it worth?

Feb 11, 2014

Obsolete Terms

The little essays haven't been very regular lately because I haven't been at the coffee shop much. Saving money but I get lonely sitting in front of the computer at home banging out kata after kata. It's been a rather productive winter so far, 5 new manuals on the way, four of them "in the can" which is great.

"In the can" being yet another obsolete term referring to film as in the movie's done. In this last manual I have included the four Daikendori kodachi kata that I know thanks to Peter Boylan who taught them to us last century. In doing some background and out of curiosity I did some searching on the great hive-mind of the internet and found a couple of Japanese blogs that dealt with the set. Great I thought, I'll just transate these and pick up the last 6 kata of the set.

Turns out these blogs were only snippets dealing with Kami Tsuto Flow Secretary (That's Muso Shinden Ryu "secret writings" by the way) and the books by Masaoka Ikkan. At least that's my impression after being sucked back over and over to mechanical translations by Google, Bing and some independant websites that are surprisingly useful and hilarious at the same time. (You will find that "sperm" should actually be read as "directly down"). Given a day or two I could get the gist of a couple paragraphs but the obsolete terms of budo are a real problem for this kind of translation. I spent so much time flipping silly English back into romanji I ended up using find and replace more than anything else.

Incidentally I recommend anyone look at the google translate page closely for translation work. It's really quite fascinating and does a lot, gives you romanji and English, speaks to you, lets you draw kanji... Hours of distracting fun.

So at the end of all that I sort of figured out that the blog authors don't really know much more than what's written in the densho, for instance for number 6, "When my opponent is a big mountain I take hidari seigan and win by hitting his fist". Not even I would have the nerve to work out a kata from that description. Show me the kata once though....

After moving through three sets of sword striking and three of jujutsu along with the four sets of solo iai in the school, combined with a couple-dozen years of practice, I'm pretty sure I could catch those last 6 kata out of the corner of my eye. And boy would I like to do that, it's so irritating that they seem so close, yet out of reach.

Anyone out there want to send me a video?

Speaking of which, I have been floored lately at the technology at our disposal in the last ten years. When I did the first 5 iai manuals I was writing on a floppy disk drive computer, working in Wordstar and pasting up hand drawn illustrations into the pages so that they could be photocopied and printed. a few years later video was on VHS with cameras the size of suitcases. I have so many old and very expensive electronic instruments around the house I seriously doubt I broke even on all the manuals and videos we sold over the years.

Today? One of my students had his smartphone out while I was going through one of the jujutsu sets with the class. He filmed, cut and put the films, sorry, files up on the CIJF site (Iaido-canada.com) almost the next day. I found them there a couple of days ago and was astonished at how un-crippled I looked, oh also at how good the information was. I mean the film, the details you could pick up, not the instruction. The point is that today there is no excuse for ever losing or even misplacing kata again.

I used to make a special effort to lug the VHS camera to class and film the students. The other day I wanted them to see themselves and started to look around for my video camera when I slapped myself on the head. Get your phones! was the command and almost every one of them had a video camera to film and review their kata that day. Insane, we all need to adjust our teaching styles to this environment.

My point? I know there are folks in the backwoods of Japan who are still practicing the "lost kata" of Tosa Iai, how about running me off a small vid so I can compare what I've got with what else is out there? And while we're at it, maybe send me those last 6 kata of Daikendori? Fill up that hole in my brain where they belong. I'd be ever grateful and would even send along a manual in return.

Feb 9, 2014

Why am I still here?

Having had some thoughts about why other instructors are still in front of the class, and how to keep them there, I got thinking about myself. Why am I still teaching? My first time in front of a budo class must have happened in the early '80s so that's around 30 years so far.

It started like most folks started back then, there was nobody else to do it, and so "gone before" was really the only qualification that was available. No teaching, no class and no practise. I remember the look on the face of my first student when he found out that I was exactly a week ahead of him in our iaido class. I would drive in to the city on Saturday and practice for as long as I was allowed with my sensei and then back to Guelph and two classes during the week to review what I'd learned by teaching it. I'd never have got away with that today, with our easy access to the internet and our multiple experts who will call out us unqualified types with no experience and no license to teach.

Probably a good thing, provided of course it means we have such an excess of highly trained instructors that we can afford to shut down these half baked classes.

In my own defense I had been teaching budo for five years and practicing iai for three before I met my sensei in Toronto so I wasn't entirely wet behind the ears.

Now, I've taught iai for 25 years or so, my knees are shot, I'm 60 or 70 pounds heavier (three pounds a year for 20 years, do the math and shudder you skinny kids) and I've got some former students who are stepping up to take over the art around these parts. What keeps me on the high side of the room?

Habit. Absolutely the most influential thing of all, that thing that keeps the old blind dalmation chasing the fire engine long after he's been retired. I simply don't know what else I would do with my time. Beyond the lack of imagination and other hobbies, my body starts to crave the movements of the martial arts. If I miss a week of classes I start to dream about the sword or about Aikido. You know that dream, the one where the bad guy just keeps coming back up off the floor no matter how many times or how hard you throw him. I wake up exhausted.

I suppose though, I could find something else to fill my time ( http://180mag.ca/ ) if a couple of my students stepped up and said they'd take over the class for me. The Kami know they could, they've got ten times the knowledge I had when I started teaching here. Mostly what I had was a massive ego. Yeah yeah.

One other thing keeps me around though, and that's the research and discovery that have shown up in the class. Every day brings some new insight as I watch the students learning this or that kata. Every mistake, every question, teaches me something new and it's a blast. I'm not giving that up without a fight. I'm also not letting my seniors go do their own thing any time soon if I can help it. The more experience they have in class, the faster I learn. I know that if they go start their own classes they will slow down their progress drastically as they convince themselves that they know stuff that's worth teaching. (Of course they do but I'm not letting them know that).

Nope, as long as the kids take care of the administrivia (now there's something that would chase me out of the dojo and into my own back yard) I'll stick around. Until of course I either know it all or stop learning, whichever comes first.

Feb 4, 2014

Why Are You Still Here?

Why is sensei still up front there teaching after so many decades? Well a lot of it is momentum, you just do what you've always done, then some of it is the responsibility of paying it forward but rarely is it because sensei is getting paid.

Which leads to some interesting situations. Students pay to go to class, they pay community centers or a dojo administrator who rents the hall and whatnot but in my circles of kendo federation sword there is very little paying of sensei. What this means is that students expect to get taught because they're paying their fees but their teacher teaches mostly out of habit.

Nothing wrong with this when it works and if nobody minds the arrangement. On the other hand, let me tell you a couple of stories. First, many years ago we were happily practicing in class one day when a note was read out, it seems our teacher's teacher had a roof that collapsed or a furnace that conked out or some such. Regardless of what it actually was, funds were being raised all over our region through his former students in order to fix the problem. Now this guy was a professional teacher and ran his own dojo but none of his students who ran their own dojo contributed up the ladder mostly because he didn't have his own organization so he lived on what he could make from his current students. Obviously not enough to fix his house.

He wasn't kendo federation which seems to have an unwritten rule about not charging to teach. Oh, except for the best teachers in the organization by common agreement, the guys who teach at the police dojo across Japan. Those guys are the best, and why not, they're professionals, they do it for a living. Not much of a living apparently, most of them end up with another job after they retire from their... well let's call it what it is, their coaching jobs.

I just saw a map of the highest paid university jobs by state for the USA. Overwhelmingly the highest paid jobs were for coaches, one or two states had university presidents as highest paid but that's it, one or two. Football is big big business so there's money to pay those guys I suppose. Not like the martial arts where somehow being paid to teach is a sort of under the table, frowny-faced thing.

Which brings me back to my question. Why is sensei still up there in front of the class? The students may figure he's getting paid so they expect him there. Maybe he is paid, but certainly not much. Usually he's not. He started the class many years ago because he was taught. It's called paying it forward and it's how the arts have survived to this day. You were taught, it's expected that you teach when you're ready for it. Please note that these days teaching seems to be some sort of reward, something that kids want to do because it makes them feel like they're dangerous units that know lots of stuff. Or some other, similar reason. It's not. Teaching is a chore that goes on for decades and it's only when you get a large amount of knowledge and experience under your belt that you start to enjoy it. Around about when teaching the mechanics turns into coaching and research. To get to that point you have to be old and very senior.

Nobody should want to be a teacher, but lots aspire. Now one of the reasons sensei is teaching is to create new teachers, that's how we pay the art forward, but the best teachers aren't the ones who want their black belt and a dojo of their own ten minutes later, the best are the ones we have to trick into it, the ones we have to boot out of the dojo by force, or the ones who inherit the dojo when we totter off to that big gasshuku in the sky.

Teachers get old before they enjoy teaching, which makes them feel guilty. They know bags of stuff but they can't show it any more. They figure the younger assistant teachers ought to be doing the teaching, so if something like the water heater exploding or the garage collapsing comes up, they may just disappear from class. They figure the students are in good hands so why not just stay home and putter around. Remember that we're talking about retired folks here, the ones who finally have time to be a professional, to think about martial arts all day instead of a couple hours an evening. The guys who really ought to be in class instead of home trying to re-shingle the shed.

What about that responsibility to pay it forward you say? Hey, they maybe got taught for ten or 20 years and have taught back for 30 or 50. You figure that isn't even? They certainly do. No guilt there for not showing up to class.

The teachers who shouldn't be teaching? The kids who find it all shiny and new? No problem, they're in class every day repeating by rote all the stuff sensei said last year. They don't worry if sensei isn't in class, they've got lots to teach. And they do of course, lots to teach anyone who hasn't been around as long as they have, but there's a guy at home enjoying a cup of tea and resting his shoulders who could teach so much more.

So if you want the guy who should be teaching to stay in the class, remember a few simple guidelines.

1. Never, ever let him name an assistant instructor, and absolutely never let him say to anyone "it's your club now". Having someone to turn things over to will let him off the hook faster than finding an even more senior sensei to take over. (Any senior sensei would give his best bokuto and four students to have a teacher to study under once again).
2. Never let him drift out of class for more than a day without tracking him down and asking for a note from his doctor.
3. Make it easy for him to get to class, if you have to arrange rides, do it. If he drives himself, pay him mileage. Note I didn't say gas money, I mean mileage so that he can fix the wear and tear on his rustbucket hatchback. Make it generous.
4. Make his wife happy. Look, if you're lucky he wants him out of the house, but if there's chores around the yard she's going to want him cutting the grass instead of teaching you on a Saturday afternoon. Set up a rotation of students so that once a year you have to go cut grass or trim hedges for sensei.
5. Pay him. I know this is far down the list but you should consider it almost at once. If you can get the fellow to accept some money for teaching he'll figure he has to show up for work. If it's costing him money to be there... well you get the idea don't you?
6. Figure out sneaky ways to pay him. Like mileage instead of gas money. Like presenting him with a new hakama when his gets a bit ratty, like finding him a deal on a new water heater, even if you didn't.

The bottom line is that old sensei need some attention to keep them in class. If they figure you don't need them they go sulk in the garden. You should develop the habit of paying them, in enthusiasm, in attention, in assistance or in money (which is actually the easiest) so that they have some reason to hop into that old rust-bucket and show up to teach you.

Feb 3, 2014
Hey, I keep looking in the search engine for new information and get annoyed finding this sort of stuff. Look it's Oe Masamichi!


Jan 26, 2014
For those interested we have moved on to the jujutsu sets of MJER and I'm slowly gathering photos for the manual. Here's a couple shots for you of our most excellent models.

Jan 25, 2014

The Tipping Point

While I'm usually one of the first to say that you can learn all there is to learn from the first kata of whatever school you are learning, there is a problem with doing one kata only, or perhaps more likely if you're talking iai or jo, one set of kata. I've noticed that those schools who concentrate on seitei tend to a bit of tunnel vision. Zen Ken Ren iai or jo are the sets of 12 kata that the kendo federation uses to test their iai and jo students for their dan ranks, they are defined in books and video and they are intended to be done in a certain way. As a result, they tend to be taught rather physically, with every aspect, every twitch and angle emphasized with equal vigor so that a student might not have much idea about what's important.

While the seitei have their special characteristics, those schools who teach only a limited range also tend to obsess over details that might best be left to arrange themselves. It's what I call the "small range" problem. If you have a small range of experience or techniques and lots of time to practise, you tend to have a problem separating things that are important from things that are stylistic. An example is the path of the sword toward the scabbard as you put it away. In most lines of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu the sword goes back in a flat path, more or less parallel to the floor. In our particular line it moves in an arc, up toward the left shoulder and down again.

Now we do it that way for a particular reason having to do with zanshin, but I can make an equally valid argument for the flat path using exactly the same reasons. The bottom line is that it doesn't really matter which you use, as long as you're using the one your sensei told you to. Yet beginners ask, agonize and argue about that shape. They don't have a lot of experience to call on and fall back on what they know. As good students they figure what sensei told them is what's correct.

Recently in our dojo we have been moving rather quickly through a lot of sets of kata in a couple of different arts and schools. I totted up the kata that we've done around here over the years and they top out at over 240. Silly when you think about it, but we study five different arts and in some cases a couple different schools in the art so the kata add up. They also repeat, which is not such a waste of time as you might think. The fact that one school or one level of practice will do a kata slightly differently than another is a valuable chance for students to discover what is important. Simply subtract the variable bits and pay attention to what remains.

The group I've got in front of me now is roughly a cohort, they all started within three or four years of each other I think, so we are moving at a roughly logical pace. In the last few years they have moved through seitei and a little bit of koryu at a snail's pace as is usual with beginners. They struggled with each kata and each took about the same amount of time to understand. The usual questions about what foot goes in front of which, the usual worries about a couple of degrees of angle in a cut. Trying to keep every detail present and sorted in their heads.

Recently though, we've been moving through several sets of kata that are relatively short and don't involve either seiza or tate hiza to any great extent. They are also partner practice which makes a surprisingly big difference in speed of understanding of what the movements are all about. A couple of weeks ago we seem to have reached a tipping point, and now the class is learning a new kata to "practise it" level in ten minutes rather than two hours.

What happened? First, some of the new kata are variations of ones they already know, but mostly the students are starting to see the kihon beneath the kata. They have seen enough variation to start understanding what is important and they are concentrating on that, ignoring the occasional crossed foot or missed angle. They have seen enough to realize that the art really does boil down to "avoid getting hit and hit him".

How many ways to get offline? More than one and less than twelve, right, not so hard. How many ways to hit someone? Well an infinite number of angles but only a foot or so of distance if you're swinging with the usual technique, add another couple of feet once you learn how to shorten up the sword. Not so hard, get out of the way of his attack and smack him, worry about sorting out the style points later.

Like I said, they seem to be over the tipping point and into collecting kata at a great rate. I hope I can get away with this for another couple of months before they turn and force me to concentrate on those style points in the core kata for a while.

Jan 23, 2014

Steal this book

I often wonder why I do things, like order six boxes of different style bokuto in this latest shipment of shiro kashi weapons from our factory. We have ittoryu (shortish and brutish), Yagyu ryu (thin and elegant), Keshi ryu (thick and heavy), Jigen ryu (fat edge, thin back), and something Brenda will doubtless call the "ninja" (long long long tsuka), katori shinto (short) and shindo muso-ryu (two plane mune instead of one).

Of course in another pile we've got iwama aikido and kendo no kata daito as well as niten ichiryu, and I don't remember what else.

So if anyone wants to get the exact bokuto your koryu requires..... and there's my question to myself. Other than me and the five of you guys reading this stuff, who studies these arts? And of those studying the arts, who is trying to find specialized bokuto when a regular old Kendo no Kata will do?

I figure it's just for my own amusement that I humped a couple of tons of wood into the warehouse yesterday.

At least it got me up off my butt from the manuals project. Got two in the final stage (Tachi Uchi no Kurai and Kurai Dori), one more needs photos (Tsumiai no Kurai) and just today I got the text roughed out for the "jujutsu of Tosa Iai" book with three sets of grappling (Daishozume, Dashotachizume and Tsume no Kurai) I'm hoping those last three will stay small enough for a single book, they're more waza than kata so it they should stay smallish. It got so bad on the rear end that I bought a big fluffy cushion to sit on while I type.

Since I'm doing a blog post you can figure I'm out having coffee, and I am, watching the fog as it hits zero C and a month of deep freeze seeps out of the bones. Maybe I'll even hit the shop but I don't want these books getting put on a back burner again. Why aren't they done long ago, and why aren't there two or three of me so someone else can fight with the website hosts.

So to my main comment, I've been hunting the net for information that once was there but is no longer as websites disappear or get changed. I'm having to go back over ten years of my own photo magazine and change an address on hundreds of pages because my hosting company decided to charge for subdomains rather than leave them as part of the base cost. Just so you know, that's a pointer in the software that lets you write the url taylor.180degreeimaging.com instead of 180degreeimaging.com/180taylor/ Now why I ever bothered in the first place I haven't a clue, I know better. Simple, baseline code, no fancy formatting!

And never count on anything staying online if you need it. There are countless places out there that have done their proper internet references, noting webpage and (tellingly) the date they acquired the data. That's important because website articles can be changed, dropped, moved or just plain lost.

Just for the record, EJMAS.com will be online and unchanging (ie looking as clunky and old fashioned as it does now) for as long as I am alive to pay for the hosting and as long as I have a backup to fix the hosting company mistake that corrupts the whole damned thing. I have resisted fancy formatting in favour of easily updated and added to. I can still understand the thing and when it comes time to pass it along, someone with a tiny bit of html skill can probably pick it right up.

Back to the problem with the res of the net. Nettiquette says that you don't copy or mirror articles, you reference them so that readers can go to the original website and the owners there can collect click-through ad revenue or some such. That used to work until browsers started blocking ads... at which point I figured the ads on EJMAS were no longer working... turns out I had ads blocked on my own browser,which explains the lack of ad revenue from the website.

Where was I? Oh yeah, links and references. I dunno what the solution is, for my own research I try to steal ..... er download and store offline... what articles I figure I will need later if I think about it at the time.

So for those of you old enough to remember "steal this book"

Jan 10, 2014

A Budo Writer's Lament.

Haven't been in the coffee shop for a while, have been spending my time at home, brewing my own pots of coffee and researching into the so-called "lost kata" of the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. Not of course so lost as neglected.

My concern isn't the solo kata, there seems to be a couple of sets of those but we've got plenty of solo iai to keep us amused here in Guelph, with ZKR iai, five sets of MJER, Keshi, Shindo Munen (what are we supposed to call it now... koden ryu, Kodoko?). Anyway, there's plenty to play with there. I'm more interested in the jujutsu and the kenjutsu of the school so I've been doing a bad thing. I've been resurrecting stuff from books, something we're not supposed to do.

But I'm doing it anyway, simply because it interests me and I don't consider learning from a book to be a bad thing. If the book is written by a teacher in MJER, and I've been doing MJER for 30 years, I figure I've got a good chance of "getting it right", especially when I look at the variation between teachers and lines in the "live" parts of the school.

You know, since about 2005 there's been discussions on the net about how some little old guy in back-country Kochi is still doing the lost forms, and threats by those with a reason to go to Japan to look these guys up. In those discussions I've usually suggested that you don't need more than what you've got if you can't practice that often enough. So why look for more? While I really do believe that, I've also been waiting for news from those who went to find.

Still waiting. In the meantime I've sucked a lot of juice out of the usual kata, and have an itch to see if I can learn more. I'm not getting any younger and I decided to see what the internet and the library could offer. A lot more than I thought it might, and of course much less. Suffice to say I've dug up all but 6 of the lost partner kata and I suspect I might one day find those. It's enough for me to start back with the manual writing, which is a thing that gives me the feeling of doing some work without actually getting out in the snow and doing some work.

Who knows, if I finish one or two of these manuals maybe I'll get back to all the 90% done books sitting around my place. The holdup of course was always the illustrations but hell, I just figured out how to take photos while I'm demonstrating at the same time. Not perfect, but it works, only one seriously ugly shot out of the first three sets. I may not even bother reshooting it.

No, my problem now is that I keep re-organizing and re-writing the manuals as I find better ways to explain things. They expand and I start thinking maybe I ought to split them yet again. A hundred pages or so seems about right for learning. The next problem is format, do I make e-books or paper? I was leaning to e-books for a while but have swung radically back to paper which will likely be a lot more useful in the dojo and a lot more permanent in the long run. I can still lay my hands on books and manuals from the 80s while I have a hard time figuring out which copy of my current text is the one I should be working on. Or where it is for that matter. People say make backups so I do, and then spend hours trying to find the backups and checking out which is the working copy and which the backups.

I do have a few e-books online at sdksupplies.com now, most free but one is for sale; the Riai of MJER and I've sold two copies so far. Not a hopeful record compared to the print stuff. I'll continue to self-publish all of it, cerlox bound to lie flat and all that. Expensive to produce and quite homegrown in feel but I don't care, it's useful and I know where it goes and I make more than if it was with a fancy publisher in a fancy glue-bound cover.

Yeah yeah, it's not a "real" book but hey, I'm not a "real" teacher so it's a fit. Info for my students and no frills outside that.

Jan 6, 2014