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Take a Bow

Every so often, quite often actually, I hear "budo begins and ends with etiquette". Since we bow in and bow out of every single practice, as well as bowing to the room each way through the door, I have always wondered why we get told this. We spend hours being taught exactly how to bow and we can even fail an exam for doing it wrong. As a matter of fact, in the kendo federation, wrong etiquette is almost the only way you can fail your first national exam, being dressed incorrectly being another. Oh, and don't drop your sword.

So what is it that we're being told when we're reminded about etiquette? Let's explore a bit.

What are we bowing to?

Thats a good question and the answer has had some relevance over the years. Several times we've had students come into class and say that they can't bow because of religious reasons. Presumably they can bow to nobody but their gods, and my personal response is "fine, don't bow" (I don't really have the inclination to argue religion any more). In most cases they wander back out of class and in some they have started bowing, presumably because of a combination of peer pressure and rationalizing that if there's no intention to worship the person (invisible or not) in front, bending over from the waist is just bending over from the waist.

So are we bowing to the gods of budo? There are such but I'm dinged if I know their names. I'm a lot more familiar with Ares than Hachiman, and that's just because Ares had a recurring role in Xena.

I certainly don't bow to gods when I'm bowing in, except maybe to Anoia the goddess of things that get stuck in drawers. I don't want my sword getting stuck in my scabbard since, like a knife in a drawer, it tends to jump out and cut you if you yank at it. Oh and constantly to he who won't be named, may he eat me first.

We may be bowing to the teacher. I have no problem with that, showing a bit of respect to the guy who is showing me how to do this stuff is a good idea I figure. I'm not paying him, so why not show my appreciation in that way. (Nobody I have learned from was ever a professional teacher or I'd have happily both paid and bowed). When it's me up front teaching we usually don't bow at me. I respect my students but I bow to them when I bow to my sword. I started teaching way too soon to have them bow at me separately, it was embarassing and now if we do it, it's for their own good so that they know to do it when they're somewhere else. I still bow to them when I bow to my sword. In a separate bow to me they are bowing to everyone who taught me, and so am I.

That doesn't explain the other bows, to the room on the way in, to the sword and the head of the room. When in doubt, bow to it. My iaido sensei explained to me that since I wasn't Japanese I wasn't bowing to any shinto gods at the head of the room, so it's a bow to the high place in the room. Nobody is there for me but it's a nice reminder of a place to keep in mind, an anchor as I move around doing the various kata.

I bow to the sword in an appeal not to bite me. I bow to my table saw and my band saw every time I use them... not physically but in my head as in "please let me walk away from you with ten fingers today". You think I'm kidding? Respect your tools, especially the ones that can kill you. Ritual is important, drop the bucket on the backhoe when you get out, check the kickback clutch on the chainsaw, stick the screwdriver in the socket to trip the breaker before you rewire it. Mindful ritual is good, mindless habit is not quite as good but better than thoughtless action.

So that's the high point in the room (the gods) the teacher and the sword. The room? Well the usual explanation is that it converts the room into a dojo, a place of worship. I'm good with that, or if not, how about "thanks to the administration for allowing me a warm place to practice so I don't have to be out in the woods". Anybody who practices in a public space knows you have to kowtow for it. I said the woods because I can't imagine you would be able to swing a sword in a public park any more... not even with the weird skirts that used to identify you as a harmless geek. Now there are people who are paid to re-imagine you as tour'rists. No, the deep woods it is, and change location often so as not to alarm the local dog-walkers.

What do we bow to? How about the art itself, the teachers in your lineage (ancestor worship) who have kept the thing alive and allowed it to pass along to you?

Where do you bow from?

As a teacher do you return the bow of your students from a position of authority and power, or do you bow to them from humility as a request to forgive any mistakes you pass along? Are you teaching or learning together? Are you doing them a favour by letting them know what you know or are they your legacy to the future, your only shot at immortality? You should think about that and decide which.

Students sit on the low side of the dojo, they sit in heirarchical order, they are already in a place of humility, of course they are bowing from humility, we don't need to worry about that. Do we?

Do I say "budo begins and ends with etiquette"? I may have, when looking at beginners, I may have even said it un-ironically but certainly never seriously to my experienced students. The only meaning they would draw from it was that I thought they were disrespecting me and for my own ego I would never admit I know that.

If your teacher says it to you, check back in your memory, have you disrespected him? Something you haven't done? Are you not humble enough? Are your dues paid for the month and did you sweep the floor? Maybe it's just a comment to the beginners but it's always best to check.

Dec 30, 2014

It's always something.. else

Trolling through Google Scholar yesterday I came across a course outline on the martial arts that aimed at disabusing students of the idea that martial arts are an ancient cultural repository of traditional wisdom. Tru-dat. (I hope that means what I assume it means).

Instead, they are things that are used, even today. I use them. I have always used them for what I can get from them on my own terms, and those never included a desire to learn 3000 year old Korean culture (from TKD) or even 500 year old Japanese culture (from the koryu).

I came across another paper which was in Japanese but had an English abstract which seemed to indicate that the Meiji police forces included martial arts for a different reason than I'd been told a couple weeks earlier in a popular bit of writing... to whit, that the Police learned sword because their main enemy, the Yakuza used swords as their preferred weapon. Which was weird because a Ninja master told me about 30 years ago all about being chased through the streets of Tokyo by gun-wielding Yakuza, but never mind.

My attention got caught by the Police budo paper because I have finished yet another manual (in proofs with my students), this one on Keshi ryu iai (the Meiji police iai set) and what is now called "Hosoda ryu". The two sets I learned from Takeshi Mitsuzuka sensei a hundred years ago. I always liked the two schools because I was taught Hosoda as Shindo Munen, and that art was taught in a Tokyo dojo where the young Edo-era bravos from the countryside used to go to "study the sword". They went to plot and plan the overthrow of the government of course, so the budo at that time was a way to collect rebels. I doubt anyone really worried about accurately transmitting the culture of the samurai of 300 years earlier. What training was done was likely concerned with that new shinai-geiko stuff... but the Shindo Munen dojo and others like it did help, however incidentally, to keep the arts going during that period.

After the Meiji restoration it was the turn of the police sword practice to help keep the old sword arts alive, and hence my delight in putting those two sets of practice into one book.

Which brings me back to the paper I found that, according to the abstract, argues the Police had another reason for getting involved in budo than fitness (undoubtably part of it) and practicality (they were armed with swords for a short time at least, before they decided a jo or a gun was more efficient), and that was to drain the best sword teachers away from those very anti-government type gangs that helped topple the previous government.

An excellent and ancient tactic as proven by dozens of samurai movies I've seen. Co-opt the best fighers from the other side, buy them or argue them onto your side. Rebels aren't usually that well off unless they are backed by a government somewhere, so they aren't likely paying their sword teachers very well. Get those teachers on the police payroll and set up the most prestigious tournament system and you've drained a lot of momentum from the rebel groups. Get rid of the extra-government tournaments and you get rid of a system of meeting places where rebel leaders can talk about anti-establishment stuff. Now you've got your own place to talk about pro-establishment stuff to young men of that dangerous dissenting age.


Then a few years later you get into the whole state shinto, bushido for the peasants thing but I'm not so interested in that bit of cultural tradition even if it is a big undercurrent to the present-day ancient arts.

For my purposes, the budo being culturally detached from my own culture is a very good thing. They come with no baggage that I don't see plainly and trying to attach them to things Western isn't going to happen any time soon (although folks try). The gun is a much better symbol of all things Government and Anti-government in the West. Like the sword in Japan, the gun in the West can be snuck into the modern conscience as a symbol of things that never were because it's part of the sub-liminal awareness developed from years of cowboy movies. Western cowboys and Eastern samurai. Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune. Rugged individualists and loyal servants, all symbols that might just be serving something else.

Dec 21, 2014

The Star Trek Economy

We seem to be heading toward a Star Trek economy these days. That's a world of unlimited energy and free material goods. I said heading toward.

Unlimited energy: Well pretty cheap gas at the moment, and if the laser fusion guys get their process going, energy will be even cheaper. Boeing says they have a design that may work for city-sized reactors and there's someone who has just figured out how to make flexible solar cells by stripping them from a reusable silicon base. That means roofing and siding your house with solar cells instead of asphalt and vinyl.

So unlimited in the sense of not limited. Nothing is without limit of course, as many episodes of hunting for dilithium crystals have shown.

And the free material goods? Well we're somewhat distant from a replicator, although 3d printers are a start. Download a pattern from the net and print it up. No development costs, no running to the store or online ordering, just download and print.

Is there an economics department anywhere in the world trying to figure out what an economy based on flat or declining growth looks like? Can "the market" deal with anything but endless growth in the economy?

I think the Star Trek economy is going to be a lot less material and a lot more intellectual as folks get all the stuff they want (have you asked your dad what he wants for Christmas yet? Did he say "nothing"? Old Spice again for me thanks, I've got everything I want, I know because I check the flyers that arrive free at my door and there's nothing there I want.

That's was always the problem with trickle down economics, if you can't convince the rich people that they need to buy really, really expensive watches they are just going to get more and more rich. There's a limit to how much "stuff" you need and most folks feel a little foolish after about six cars.

I also think we might see a lot less people in the martial arts classes as everyone gets into a stay-at-home mentality. If you work at home, make your stuff at home, and bring in your entertainment on the broadband you don't get into the habit of going out to class. Unless of course we can promote some sort of budo benefit beyond self defence. (If you aren't outside your house much you don't have much of a worry about self defence). If that happens we need to join music education as "a way to improve thinking".

In the west here we still manufacture a lot of stuff, but less and less as the jobs move to the young (in age) countries and the lower wages that come with them. As the women in those countries get educated their population growth will peak and world population is supposed to turn down at around 9 billion. Nine Billion. It was less than 2 when I was a kid, I can't believe we've made it this far, and it's been done on constant screaming growth. Or maybe it is that growth, how do you measure growth? "Stuff per capita world-wide"? Theres more stuff but is it more stuff per capita?

I'm counting on cheap fusion energy to save our first world lifestyles rather than having the first world collapse back to the level of the third as oil becomes too expensive to use and that growth bubble of the last 50 years pops. I'm counting on the Star Trek economy to bump everyone on the planet to the same place and I'm counting on the kids who grew up swimming in the internet to figure out how it's going to work.

There will be problems. The corporations and the organizations are going to resist the individualization that will come with those 3D printers. The street to house delivery systems (the "internet providers") are going to try to crank up prices to make up for losses elsewhere. The entertainment corporations are going to step up their efforts to make money off of their copyrights. Same for the R and D departments of corporations and Universities as they try to make up on patent licensing what they are losing on sales of product or education. The solution to all of this is likely going to be government intervention, either national (elected) or trans-national (non-elected corporations) who will want to grow by acquring more and more patents and copyrights across borders.

The information economy can only run on supply and demand principles if the information supply can be limited.

I prefer the Star Trek economy, let's see what 9 billion humans free of material wants can do. Maybe they can get it back down to 2 billion without mass starvation, disease or carrying the old folk up the mountain... er putting them onto the ice floes.

Kids... start subverting my world!

Steal this book.

Dec 16, 2014

The Many Hats Theory of the Unverse

I do several martial arts and I have to keep them separate. In other words, I "wear many hats". I love this expression and so, apparently does Terry Pratchett whose hero Moist von Lipwig has just acquired another hat in his latest book.

When I am teaching Niten Ichiryu I tell the class that Musashi, the founder of the art, was in upwards of 60 duels and was never defeated. When I'm teaching Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo I tell the class that Muso, the founder of the art, fought Musashi and lost, but came back after he'd invented the jo and defeated Musashi. I've got no problem with that, these stories come from almost 400 years ago and were written down a generation or three after the events so it's "Shakespeare in love" and Shakespeare the Catholic. Musashi the Toyotomi loyalist.

When I was on the board of directors and an executive for the Canadian Kendo Federation I repeatedly told my fellow board members that I was not the "iaido and jodo director", there was no such position. I did that job for the entire Federation and argued more than once to the disadvantage of the minor arts while also arguing for them as the situation demanded. I wore the director hat when I was a director and the Iaido/Jodo hat when asked to argue for Iaido/Jodo. Sometimes in the same meeting. Recently I was accused of "making your students do your work". I pointed out that the people talked about were, yes, my students, but they are also now officers in the CKF and as such were actually the ones who should be doing the job I asked them to do. That's their hat now, not mine and I'm not going to step on their authority in those matters. In matters where I'm wearing the "head of section" or "sensei" hat, that's a different place and I wouldn't ask them to do the things it's my job to do. Respect the hat when it's on someone else's head.

It comes down to compartmentalization. If you are more than a one-note fellow you need to separate your life into compartments. You need to figure out which hat you're wearing and to that job. What about the inevitable places where one hat interferes with the other? Like when I'm supposed to be sitting on a grading panel while my daughter is having a birthday party. My feelings were always that the larger hat was the one further away from you personally. I sat grading panels because that's the wider bunch of people, the ones further away from my personal desires, the "less selfish" choice. Did my family see it that way? Absolutely not, to them my martial arts are the selfish choice so you can't win. Don't try, just wear the hats with as little damage as you can to each other. My other consideration in that particular instance was that my daughter really didn't miss me, she had lots of family around and dad was mostly just part of the background anyway.

Eventually you may have to give up one hat or take up another. If you can't wear the hat well, it is certainly time to pass it on, nobody is ever irreplaceable, other folks may do the job differently but that doesn't always mean worse. You may find the hat is getting a bit heavy, again it will be time to pass it along. We all get old and we all get tired, but mainly we should all pass on the hat before it's too late for someone else to grow into it.

Be the hat. The job you're doing comes with a set of rules and you ought to understand what they are. If you're teaching Aikido you don't start talking about German Longsword... unless you're comparing the two somehow, and if you are, Aikido better come out on top. If you're on the budget committee don't suggest giving your sensei a massive honourarium unless he actually deserves it. As his student you may be sure he does, but with your budget hat on you need to see things with the proper eyeballs. What's he done for the federation lately?

Folks make a lot of "conflict of interest" and stepping out of meetings when you're in one. Fair enough for financial decisions that involve you personally and suchlike, but for most of the time it's enough if you remember which hat you should be wearing. You're never not in a conflict of interest unless you're a pretty boring fellow.

Dec 15, 2014

Don't Presume

To speak for your elders, your sensei, your granny or anyone else if they can still speak for themselves. Or even after they are dead, unless you include the words "I think" somewhere in that speach.

I've seen much too much assumption in my life that I later checked and found was totally off base and it irritates me to no end. If you are asked to speak for someone, speak in that person's voice, not your own, not even through the filter of your own wishes and desires. You don't pick and choose when you're a spokesman or an interpreter, you speak for and you translate. Don't edit, censor or explain.

This can apply to objects and a great example is the photograph by Ruth Orkin entitled "An American Girl in Italy" 1951. Go ahead and look it up. This photo is being used right now as an example of "harassment of women by men on the street". I dunno why, easy to get hold of I suppose, assumption that it's out of copyright? Regardless, it's a great example of speaking for your granny, of putting your own agenda atop the life experience of previous generations and it shouldn't be done.

You see, this particular granny is still alive and living in Toronto Ontario right now at 87 and her name is Ninalee (Jinx) Craig. I know this because she wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail and said "... as long as I breath, I will maintain I was not being harassed in Italy. I was young, free and having the time of my life." If you're not old enough to have heard that nickname, it was usually given to someone who sounds just like Ms. Craig.

Now look at that photograph again.

I was raised by working women. Both my grandmothers worked and contributed at least half the income to their families. My paternal granny was a single mother. My mother worked her entire life and was a single mother. My girlfriends and my current wife all worked and continue to work I presume. None of them felt downtrodden or glass ceilinged or victimized any more than the men in their lives, or any less. I think you need to be at least upper middle class (able to survive as a family on one salary) before you can start talking about being oppressed as opposed to having to work for a living. The 50s were five minutes and some folks didn't have those union jobs at the car factory. My mother would have loved to stay at home and paint instead of working as an X-ray technician. I know because she told me so. Harassed? Sure, harass me right onto the sofa to watch the soaps she might have said.

I suspect there are a great many women out there who might not appreciate having their lives spoken for. I know my mother had lttle time for what my daughter now calls "first world problems". Like being looked at while walking down the street in Italy. Several years ago a Spanish grad student working in my department angrily cornered me and demanded to know why Canadian men wouldn't look at her. "She was good looking, she dressed well, she did her makeup well and these jerks wouldn't even acknowledge that, let alone appreciate just how good looking she was." It took me a while to calm her down and explain that in Canada if we did what she asked of us we might just get fired.

One woman's joy in life is another's harassment. Which has the right to speak for the other?

If you must speak, speak for yourself, not your elders, not your sensei. They have their own voices and their own life experience which is greater than yours. They know where the closets are buried and what's hidden away from the kids in the back of the skeleton. When you've been around long enough to have built the world you live in, comment on that one. Don't presume to understand the world you've been handed, you weren't there on the street having a blast in Italy. Riding a Vespa in a short dress. Flipping off the boys as you stride by on your way somewhere exciting and, if you're lucky, maybe a bit scandalous.

I bet my daughter just smiled.

Dec 13, 2014

Terrible Sensei

I think I must have the worst pass record of all the iaido 6 and 7dan folks in Canada. Not that I mind, personally, because I don't teach to pass tests, and we don't restrict our teaching to a single art. In fact that's most of the problem right there. We study too many arts to make for efficient learning of the things you need to pass gradings. We tend to study comparisons between arts, lines, angles, planes of attack, all the things that are more or less useless when you're trying to demonstrate a highly controlled kata which requires hours of repetition.

But I'm not interested in hours of repetition, I want to play with all the other stuff. I want to look at an overall art and ask what it means to the mindset of the guys who developed it. Then I want to teach in such a way that it is of benefit today rather than 1550 Japan.

Here are some of the things we discussed in a class recently.

In most classes of martial arts you are supposed to be alert and ready for an attack at any moment for the entire class, to be "on" concentrated, serious and full of zanshin at all times. I know that but I don't run my classes like that and I explained why. Since my way is wrong I won't explain my reasons here, you just do it the right way (the way you were taught).

But why do you teach it the way you teach it? It's OK for a few years/decades to simply do it because that's how you were taught but you're a poor student if you never go beyond copying your sensei. Thats not why he spent so long teaching you, figure out the why and wherefore of this stuff.

Iaido is the budo where I figure you will learn the most about the true samurai mindset. If, that is, you combine your analysis of your art with a bit of history. What was the true reality of life from about 1550 to now in Japan? How does that compare to the movie version? If you haven't gone over your research papers lately, try google scholar or google books and see what you can find. There's a lot of material out there that isn't behind a firewall, and some of the key modern books can be had in ebook style for reasonable prices (ie. less than the cost of a pitcher of beer).

Beyond the overall feeling of... paranoia? during a class, there are the kata themselves which I am quite strict about. Not that I yell a lot but I'm not happy looking at a sloppy performance. I want to see zanshin throughout, not as some sort of add-on to the end of the thing. I want to see a performance with no suki, no openings for attack. I want to see seme, pressure on the opponent at all times. I also want to see a very clear demonstration of why each movement and non-movement is made. I did spend some time yesterday yelling at folks to decide which of several targets they suggested as permissible, were the targets they were trying to hit. It's all well and good to hear sensei saying "you can cut to the chest and the knee or to the chest twice or to the head and the neck" and remember it. But pick a specific target, don't just wave your sword around in front of you and hope you hit something.

Now think about trying to cut that specific target in that specific way for anything but a test. What I mean is try to imagine a situation in real life where you'd need to do it exactly like you've practiced it a thousand times... literally.

Right, never mind that, let's think about doing a kata that has three imaginary opponents. You are ready, you make your move and without letting them have a chance you kill them all, they are lying on the floor making their peace in pieces. You maintain zanshin and put the sword back into the saya and keeping a watchful awareness on everyone else in the room you return to your starting point.

Wait. All the bad guys are dead right? Otherwise why would you put the sword away? So what's this zanshin stuff?

You tell me.

What does iaido teach you about the mindset of the samurai?

Would you change the teaching method to suit the modern world?

Dec 10, 2014

Personal Responsibility

We all see the world through our own glasses and I'm well into being an old fart who figures everything is going to heck in a handcart but...

I really feel that personal responsibility has been outsourced. I mean it's hard to get here to the cafe if we hit the "drive the kids two blocks to the school"-rush. There are certain streets in this town, which is sleepy and safe, that you don't go down because they are plugged with SUVs dropping off 8th graders. As far as I remember it, my mother walked me to school the first day of kindergarten and said "think you can find it tomorrow?" and was never seen in the school again.

Never mind the kiddies and the helicopter parents, (who I, thankfully, don't see at the University yet), the news has been full of a good deed gone south lately, a woman who died after defending a couple of girls being harassed. I just had to pause and check to see that this was in Germany, I had the impression it was just next door. Which is part of the problem.

The news is full of the Kitty Genovese syndrome, bystanders who do just that, bystand and don't do anything. It's one of the favourite themes of psych classes and a recent story was of a study with some seminary students who were told to do a presentation on either the good samaritan or their future religious career, they were then told they were late for the presentation or had lots of time and sent past a guy collapsed in a door.

Well the ones who had lots of time stopped more than the ones who were busy and the ones who had the Samaritan topic stopped more than the careers folks. Not a huge surprise I suppose, although I'd have liked to see 100% stop, as would everyone else I imagine.

And did I see myself stopping? Did you? I walk past guys in doorways a lot. Who says they need help? I also don't interfere when girls are being cat-called because I never see it happening, although my daughter assures me it does. Maybe I'm just not paying attention or maybe it's happening when I'm not there.

When I'm not there, when the police aren't there, when "someone else" isn't there, someone whose job it is to deal with stuff.

When you're alone and in trouble just whose job is it? Those parents who drove you to school? The police? "Society"? When did we outsource our own protection to someone else? Around the time the phrase "blaming the victim" became popular?

A zillion years ago a buddy and I decided the basis of self defence was a sense of personal responsibility. I haven't changed my mind, you're responsible for your own protection, not me. Don't come to me with tales of being abused by your girlfriend unless you want me to tell you to leave her. I don't do sympathy (or empathy) very well, I don't do "tsk tsk isn't that awful, I feel your pain and someone should do something", because I know it's not going to change and I know who should do something about it. I've taught self defence for way too many decades to figure couples "work it out" in the short term. Long term they figure out how to stop "communicating" (which is code for trying to change the other one because "it's them what's wrong").

Helping on the street? Why not?

Well because you're going to get killed according to the news. You don't get stories about snowy days without massive pile-ups or those times in a restaurant where an old fart gives a couple a frowny glare when they start raising their voices, and nothing else happens. You get stories from across the ocean where a girl gets killed trying to help and it seems like that's next door. It might even be next door, but the fact that it's reported at all means it's rare.

Man bites dog.

CPR on someone who collapses? Why not?

Because you don't know how of course. It's "perceived efficacy", you have taken a CPR course, you maybe give it a try. You have no idea how, why would you try? You wouldn't. I was once a CPR instructor and it was pretty simple then but we had to count. Apparently now you don't count, you just pump and blow, maybe not even blow much any more, I dunno I haven't recertified, but the point seems to be to get folks to try something, anything.

Same with my self defence classes. I did the research and statistically anything works except begging, crying and pleading. Oh and doing nothing which must be obvious but apparently is not. Any kind of resistance works, all of it works. Just do something.

And how are my classes? Dead. The course doesn't run any more. I know for a fact it has been used by those who took it because they've come back and told me, but as the percent of women went up at the school over the last 25 or 30 years, and as total numbers of students went up, the number who took the course went down. Of tens of thousands of students there aren't 10 who want to do the course. There is, apparently, an epidemic of abuse going on according to the posters, but it's someone else's problem I guess. It's been outsourced to someone. Me? No not me because I'd teach the course if anyone wanted to learn it, even though I don't like teaching it, I'm too old and it hurts but it's my.... responsibility? I know how so I have the responsibility to teach it?

Is that weird these days? Like I said, an old fart with old ideas I guess.

Well my old ideas say that kids should walk to school by themselves, and be taught things that will be useful, like self defence, martial arts (which are all about old fashioned ideas like responsibility to society, duty to protect and suchlike), science-based health, contraception that isn't "don't", defensive driving... or even just "don't tailgate".

Aargh, I sound like an old fart even to myself.

When my son was very small he got in trouble at school for fighting. His side of the story was that the upper grade kid was picking on a lower level girl. He almost got kicked out of the zero tolerance school. Later on I asked him why he didn't hit the girls back when they hit him and he said "you don't hit girls". Apparently girls can hit guys.

Sounds like school teaches girls they can abuse without consequence and boys they shouldn't protect. I say get the teachers off the playground and let them sort it themselves. What you've got now is a lot of ratting on each other to the authorities who are expected to do something about it. I remember being the new kid on the playground and as the local bullies were heading for me one of the lone wolves drifted by and told them to "leave the new kid alone". It took all of three minutes to sort and I was left to assimilate.

You want to stop the bystander syndrome? Teach a little personal responsibility and give permission to help. Listen to how many times a week you are told not to interfere and reject the advice. Get your sorry rear end out to a decent self defence class.

Says the dinosaur.

Dec 7, 2014

Musashi was a crap technical writer.

Looking around on the net for stuff that has disappeared, you will find a lot that has shown up. For instance, looking for an old paper on Musashi, I came across two or three translations of the Go Rin no Sho I hadn't seen before. That makes what? 15, 20?

As usual I checked first to see if they were the Victor Harris translation... there are dozens of those out there unattributed. Once it's digitized it's fair game I suppose. Then I look at the first of the five kata and see how close they get to the way that Niten Ichiryu does it today. That's always good for a laugh as the various translators try to interpret something that really shouldn't be so hard to get. There are two major lines, the Noda ha and the Santo ha and two or three variations in each of those lines that are still practicing in Japan and in some few cases, outside. They aren't hard to find and a few minutes conversation would reveal a lot of information about what Musashi was banging on about with his "kissaki gaeshi" and his "press down the sword".

So I'd think the first thing to do would be to talk with the current students of the students of the guy who wrote the book. But then you'd run into my problem... the various lines aren't in perfect agreement. They're pretty damned close if you look underneath a lot of style, but there are still some differences that add up to "still not sure" what Musashi was talking about. There's too much unsaid in his description of the style, and that means one thing to me. Musashi was crap at writing a manual that beginners could use.

Now you will say that the book wasn't intended for general consumption and that his students would know what he meant so there wasn't much reason to write it down, but in that case why write it down at all? Why not just say "the first kata" or "when doing chudan".

So I look at each of the translations and think to myself "am I doing it wrong? Are the other lines wrong too? Has the telephone tag reached it's hilarious and confusing end? Then I always come back to "what does it matter?" It's not as if I'm ever going to need to use my swords and as long as my way is the best way I don't even have to worry about the other lines. There's only a couple hundred of us in the world anyway.

But still, I keep looking at those translations and thinking about what was really being said and worrying that the more I read the more I settle on "yeah, he was actually describing what I do today". The power of picking and choosing what I want to see. I'd hate to think that I fooled myself into thinking that what I was doing was the "correct" way of doing it. That way lies self-satisfaction and smuggery.

Now I've got the bright idea to put all the translations side by side in a spreadsheet and examine them together to see if there are any patterns. Of course I'd have to get rid of those that were just repackaging Mr. Harris' version, and what do I do with those who have advanced degrees in Japanese but no martial arts experience, and those with years of martial arts training and no language certificates? I've heard that you can't translate accurately into a language other than your own and I've heard that if you aren't a native speaker you can't understand enough of the language you're trying to translate out of. So how do I figure out which translations were done by folks who were raised in ancient and modern Japanese and English all at once? Those would be the ones to give more weight wouldn't they?

Language skills, Martial arts skills or actually practicing the art now? Who's going to have the best translation? Hey, maybe a committee? Or I could call the spreadsheet the committee of committees. A meta-committee!

Of course I could just do what Musashi told me to do, go swing the swords and let them talk to me, but that would be too easy and it's usually what I end up doing anyway when I start down this road.

At least once every two years.

Dec 2, 2014

Budo Research

Another evening of looking around on the net for things I know damned well I got from there. And not finding them. We get the idea that everything is there but it's often not, and even more often buried under an avalanche of ads and sponsored links.

With all of 40 of us folk who are interested in martial arts research, the audience for obscure histories and analyses of nose-punching is a bit small to keep copies of interesting stuff alive in the cloud. We have to remember that the cloud is just a bunch of servers somewhere and hard-drives go offline.

So I try to remember to keep copies of anything I come across.

At least it's easy to copy things from the net. There are books I know I once owned, that I loaned to students and never came back. I want some of them now but they are out of print and not floating around in torrent-land so I'm out of luck unless one of the little beggers sees a book in the back of a closet that they don't remember buying.

Nowadays I tell students to get their phones out of their pocket and photograph the damned book and put it back on the shelf where they found it.

I'm starting to do the same thing myself, and you know, I feel not at all guilty about photographing a book that's out of print and never likely to see the underside of a printing press again... or should that be the cool side of a drum? Sure I'll buy a book that is available, but nobody in this line of business writes a history of an obscure sword school to make a living. We do it to keep the information around, to pass it down to the next generation, and I don't think there are many of us that would begrudge a fellow martial artist the chance to read our hard-written prose, even if it's from a photograph.

Books are like endangered species, they can go extinct. Scanned copies of old works are like zoological breeding populations, not really the thing in the wild but something that can still be studied and that may just make it back into the wild again one day.

So copy stuff folks, if you figure it's going to be valuable to you and you can't buy it. If the author is still alive you could send them a few dollars, that's about what you get from a mass-market book anyway. Of course if it's self-published and still being produced, buy it, in that case the author is getting a lot more than a couple bucks a copy and sales promote continued production. The flip side of the equation is an authors feeling that there's no point in printing if nobody is reading.

Now research papers, that's a whole other kettle of rotten fish. What a racket that is, academics paying to get their papers published in journals which sent the paper to unpaid reviewers and then selling that paper to libraries and charging money for reprints to other academics who need it. I still get requests for reprints from researchers who want to use my papers which were, admittedly, published at no cost to me (second tier journal of methods I guess) but cost them still. Wish I'd had digital copies to keep and send but they were written 20 years ago and who knew I'd still want a paper on how to assay fructose without a $30,000 hplc?

Copy that budo research, tuck your books away somewhere safe, your students will figure it's all on the net and won't even remember they have that borrowed first and only edition.

And fear not, all my books and videos are still in production because I did all of it myself... except that one German translation of the Niten manual that I've never even seen.

But damnit, I want that book I was looking for last night because I think I picked up a translation of the Niten chapter from the net somewhere... translated by someone or some translation program residing at a hosting company that doesn't exist any more. At least the net told me that the hosting company once existed...

Dec 1, 2014

Access, creativity and budo

Often with the martial arts it seems to be about access, who gets to learn with whom. There is always a discussion about which teacher is legitimate, who has the proper papers and who got them in a box of bowling trophies after the last headmaster died.

We like being members of an exclusive club and most of those who talk about "who's legitimate" are convinced that their lineage is impeccable, they're "in" and the rest are, if not out, at least no further in.

But access has never guaranteed great training or great learning, it's just the key to the front door and no matter how chic the furnishings in the club itself, your average kid off the street wearing saggy jeans and a baseball hat on backward is not going to look any sharper for it.

The flip side of this record is the need to perform the art "exactly as it is passed down". If you're "in" the exclusive club you can still climb the heirarchy if your particular table is closer to the front than anyone else's. You get to be the one who is most faithfully passing along those kata as taught by the guy who got the papers in the shoe box full of trophies. Or something like that.

In this scheme there is no room for creativity, especially in arts that have no competitive component. Let's face it, you can be creative in kendo, you can fight right up to the rules and invent better ways to convince the judges you've split your opponent's skull by using a brand new combination of fakes and blocks, but you can't test your new iaido idea with a shinken in your hand. As one of my teachers says, you can only invent a new kata on the battlefield.

So we koryu folks are looking for an exclusive club where we can stifle our creativity, learn only how to imitate correctly, and brag about how unoriginal we are.

Sounds like fun.

Why then, good muscle memorist and good note-taker that I am, do I not look like my sensei? In fact, I was just chatting with him about what a pain in the wazoo all the administrivia we have to deal with is, when he came out with "who the hell taught you to do Yae Gaki like you do?". Hunh? After trying "you did", the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment was "I read books??" As far as I know I do things the way I was taught. Of course I'm twice the size of my teacher and maybe my injuries (mostly knees) aren't the same as his (achilles tendon) so perhaps our bodies move differently. I also don't sit in front of him every class any more, so maybe he's changed the way he does things. I know he has. And just maybe (I'm not admitting anything here) I may have changed too over the last 20 years of practice.

No, with a big sigh I will have to admit that he was probably seeing something I read in a book. Since there aren't many books out there he's probably read the same one but I suspect something caught my eye that didn't catch his. So now I'm a bit embarassed that I was teaching something in his presence that he doesn't teach. I've got no business doing that, when he's in the room he's the sensei, even if he's told me to go teach. It is not my place to teach what he doesn't. Creativity is for my own dojo, not his.

Not that I should demonstrate a lack of learning, or a lack of originality, after all it's a poor student who doesn't learn and pick up new ways to do the same old kata, but damnit, don't try to teach your grandma how to suck eggs. Don't teach that variation on a theme in front of your instructor to his students. It's just rude.

Is he going to boot me out for doing something else? Not this time, but if I get too far from what he taught me he just might tell me I'm not his student. No, wait, he told me that the first day I met him and has told me that ever since so never mind. What is really likely to happen is that I'll get honest with myself and admit that I'm no longer his student. That's if what I do is not what he taught, but I'm not there yet.

I buy into two things, you pass the kata down intact, as faithfully as you can, otherwise the art drifts too far and too fast. But you also learn, you create, you figure out how to make new kata faithfully from the waza of the school. That fellow who said you can't make a new kata unless you're on the battlefield? He teaches me a koryu that requires public demonstrations of different kata from what you've learned as "the school". That's right, nothing you ever see outside of class in that art will be what you are taught in class.

No new kata? It's all new kata.

Access or create your way out of that one!

Nov 28, 2014

Riai, what is it good for?

Iaido is a strange activity, you're waving a sword around in the air fighting an imaginary enemy. This brings up several ways to approach the art.

The first is to dance. Take the descriptions of the movements or watch sensei and then copy it. You may not know what's going on but you can certainly memorize the dance steps and do them. This is the traditional way to learn and to teach, just copy the old texts and eventually you will learn how to recognize and read them.

In the case of the zen ken ren iai, the standard set of techniques for the kendo federation, you can even read the book and know with absolute certainty that you will now be doing the movements exactly as the best swordsmen in the organization do them. There should be no arguments anywhere with what's written in the book, and I have found none over the years. You point to something in the book and even the hanshi say "oh, good spot" and change their practice.

Reading the book you'll also find descriptions of what the opponent is doing. In the case of the first kata it starts off something like "sensing the ill intent of the man sitting in front of you, draw your sword and cut across his eyes". Is this the meaning of the kata? The meaning of iai? To defend yourself from attack by anticipating it and acting first? Is the riai of iai passed along by sensei telling you what the imaginary opponent is doing at each point in the kata? I know in the west we tend to start off with this story, giving the students a bit of a leg up to focus their rather wild sword swinging.

But no, it's just a better way of dancing. After all, it's one thing to fling your arms around in the middle of a crowded dance floor, another thing to dance with a partner and react to each other's movements. Much more complex, much more clear. Flailing your arms here and there by yourself could mean just about anything, moving your arm that same way as your partner comes around into that position beside you is quite a lot more satisfying to see.

So we do iai with the idea of an imaginary opponent in our heads, we visualize the situation and respond to it and those observing will see a different level of practice... if they have eyes to see of course. It's not the riai, it's not the underlying meaning of iai but it's important to that meaning.

It's also written into the descriptions of the movements where it's not explicitly described in the book. Many years ago we figured one of the kata was done with four opponents at the corners of a square with you in the center. The kata is done by moving to each of the corners in a certain order but we soon found that if we put people into those corners we missed the last two following what it said in the book. It says turn 90 degrees to the right and then 180 to hit the last guy. The problem is that we have moved a step forward to cut the second guy so the 90 degree turn doesn't hit the opponent.... what to do? We decided that for reality's sake we had to turn 90 degrees "plus a bit" and then 180 degrees "plus a bit" to hit the last two.

Umm, wrong reading. The book doesn't say the opponents are in a square, it might say roughly square (I haven't read it for a couple of months) and what I read is a translated version which I've been told sometimes misses the phrase "ya ya" which could be read as "around", "roughly" etc. The bottom line was the book stated 90 degrees so our opponent is at 90 degrees. There was no need to speculate and be told in "secret oral teachings" that it is 90 plus a little, ya ya 90. The description of the kata tells us who, what and where. We turn 90 and now we're square on to the opponent, he's exactly as far away from us as it takes to swing the sword after stepping toward him with the right foot. No further away, no closer. In other words our first imitation of the movements was also telling us where the bad guy is. We already know what's going on, we don't need sensei to tell us the secret and that knowledge isn't riai.

A principle isn't specific. By definition. Knowing where to cut in this kata isn't a principle of the sword and certainly not a principle of the art, it's an Arthur Murray footprint painted on the floor.

Right, so we go a step further and start to look at intentions, maybe that's riai. After all, we got told that the enemy intended us harm as we started the kata, we cut him across the face because of his intention. Maybe that's the riai, if someone intends to harm you, kill him fast and first. It's certainly a philosophy that a lot of folks hold.

Problem with this to my thinking is that I have enough trouble knowing my own intentions, let alone those of an imaginary opponent. A couple of classes ago we did the exercise where you move your sword into the path of your partner just before he starts to move toward a cut on that side (or the other, in which case you get a tap on the ribs). Is this proof that we can read the intention of our opponent? Not really, it's a bit of a confusion of the word. By starting the exercise we know the intention of our partner, it's to move to one side or the other and hit us in the ribs. What we're reading is not intention but the beginning of a movement, we're learning how to see earlier points on the motion chain we know is coming because we actually know the intention of our partner.

Think that would work while walking down the street and having someone passing suddenly swing at you? It might if you suspected everyone 100% of the time. I think my heart would explode with stress if I lived that way, better to think "you'll get the first one in but you'd better put me out because if I come back off the sidewalk you're done". I once worked for a guy who put five guys down in a bar, it was a bet and he won because they were just sitting and having a beer when some stranger started punching. One of them got back off the floor and my boss was pulped... but he won the bet.

So riai isn't reading what your opponent is about to do, that's just good reactions backed by paying attention. Not a bad combination at all, but hardly the principle of a budo. Let's go back to Mae, that first kata once more, the book says "read the intention and strike him". If we can't really read the intention of our opponent, and if governments don't accept a defence of "he was going to kill me so I killed him" (they're getting there) then does the practice of iai start with a murder?

As a beginner maybe you figured iaido was "quick draw" for the sword, that would match the get him before he gets you idea, but what did sensei say. "Slow down" maybe? Why would he want you to slow down? Surely the idea is to whip it out as fast as possible on the least excuse? OK I'm actually one of those guys who believes you ought to get to the principles on your own rather than being spoon-fed. It sticks better if you have to work a little so my question to you is to consider why sensei says make your draw slow.

In other words, riai, what is it good for? Iai, what are you practicing for?

Nov 25, 2014

A Good Enemy

One of my favourite photography quotes is from an old TV show where the fashion photographer was enthusing about some great shots he'd taken. Wonderful was the reply, you managed to take some nice pictures of an incredibly beautiful woman.

Despite all the Dove ads out there, neither Dove nor photoshop is the reason for amazing shots of fashion models. Fashion models are the reason for those amazing shots. They are the 1% of the population that are incredibly beautiful without makeup, expensive soap or photoshop so of course Fashion photographers start with them.

In an Aikido class recently I discussed the need for uke (the attacker) to keep attacking. If you want to look for a way to distinguish the "pure" Aikido experience from wrestling or MMA or even Judo, you need to have a willingness to stop when aiki stops. By that I mean that if you are practicing and your partner is just standing there after you have moved out of the way of his attack, just step out of range and be done with it. You can't blend with someone else's energy if you're wrenching him around. Forcing people to move into the positions you want is wrestling, not the magical "fakery" of Aikido where your partners throw themselves.

If you make an honest attack and then keep trying to attack the center of your partner, keep trying to get to grips with him hip to hip, keep moving toward his center, you will provide your nage (the guy that's throwing) with the chance to make you throw yourself. That's not fake, that's aikido. That's being a good attacker. That's being a fashion model to your photographer.

Trust me, at a certain point (as I was told by some very good photographers) you need to move to New York or Milan or Paris where the top makeup artists and the top models are if you want to be a fashion photographer. No matter how talented you are or how well you can use photoshop, you need the partners to be real about it. Otherwise call it glamour and charge the local matrons a decent penny for your work because they'll be happy with it. Just don't call it Fashion Photography. At best it's fashion photography.

If you don't have a partner that can keep attacking you, you can wrench folks around and throw them in what looks like Aikido but it's really just aikido.

Kendo isn't Kendo if you don't assume your partner has a shinken, and you both act accordingly, otherwise it's kendo.

In kata-based arts like jodo or Niten Ichiryu you also need a good attacker or you are simply going through the motions. You're lighting the girl like Avedon lit them, you're using a white sweep like Penn used but you aren't shooting Lisa Fonssagrives. Your shot will look somewhat fashion-like but your girl isn't Fashion so the shot isn't either.

Let's take the first kata of Niten, which is Sasen. You walk together and on the third step your attacker cuts down on your head, you move to the right to avoid that and stick him in the throat.

You have no idea how many people I've seen do that kata exactly as boringly as you just read it. There's no way that kata can be anything but boring without an attacker that is trying to crush your head for real, one that will track you if you move too soon and one that will leave you bleeding and unconscious if you move too late. You, on the other hand, will crush his throat with your wooden sword if you move forward four more inches, or if he trips on his hakama.

This is not boring, this is also something that few people can see from the outside. A photo of a skinny girl in a nice dress with the expected lighting on the expected seamless background is going to be called fashion by most people. Substitute skinny for sexy and the dress for some underwear and now you've got glamour. But some photographers are still being highly paid to take shots that look somewhat like those, and some people can see the difference. The model and the makeup and the stylist makes the difference, not the camera or the lighting diagram. The partner who is willing and capable of attacking at the edge of your ability to defend is going to make your technique look awfully good.

In Aikido there is a tendency to bring along your own attackers if you are a big teacher. Often this is explained by saying the art is too dangerous for working with strangers, that someone who is used to the teacher must take his falls. Eh, maybe, but personally I don't buy it. Most of the time in Aikido the attacker is lower ranked than the defender because the defender is the teacher. There's lots of reasons for this, mostly it's tradition, but I think it's also in large part that instructors can't take the falls any more. So that explains the balance of power dynamics which says you can't just pick Joe Blow from the class to throw, but again, I've got a different idea. It's because your usual lower-ranked student in a seminar isn't going to know how to attack, he's going to make you look awkward and force you to wrench him around into the throw you want to teach.

In the sword arts I practice the attacker and defender roles are reversed from the usual Aikido model. The higher rank attacks, the lower defends and wins. This means the attacker has the control, and the defender is always working hard to keep up and try to control the technique being studied.

It could be the same in Aikido, it should be the same. The problem is, few people explain this and beginners see teacher throwing student so figure that's how you learn. Teacher is demonstrating what should be learned, but should always explain that learning goes from experienced attacker to inexperienced defender. It seldom goes efficiently the other way. How many classes of Aikido have I attended where the beginners learned how to throw by being crushed into the ground by the more experienced people. None? OK I was one of the rag dolls for a lot of years in our club and yes, I learned how to do aikido "backwards and in high heels" as Ginger Rogers said, and I wouldn't have traded that for the world, but it was a tough way to learn. I never saw the technique, I felt it through my hands and had to translate it to understand the other side. Oh, and I wasn't getting crushed into the ground either, I was being thrown to the edge of my ability to handle it. First and foremost I learned how to be the best attacker I could be.

Yes, I like to have my own attacker when I'm demonstrating Niten Ichiryu from the winner's side. I like to have someone who will try to take my head off so that the students can see what a struggle it really is to stay alive. I also try to remember to switch the roles and push that student to show a good technique and I explain at least two times a year that the teaching side is the attacking side.

A good enemy makes a good budoka.

What about iaido? There it's absolutely critical that you have a good enemy. Yes you're really just waving a sword in the air, and that's all you'll ever do until you make your imaginary enemy appear, and then make him better than you. Solo practice is the one place where you can't pretend to be doing budo, you either are or you are doing calesthenics. You can pretend if you're waving sticks with a partner and you can pretend when you're wrenching your partner around in aikido. Until you get an honest attack from a good enemy you're going to continue pretending.

You're going to console yourself that you could take a photo with your point-and-shoot that looks as good as Juergen Teller's if your model only used Dove and you learned to photoshop.

Get a good enemy for your budo and a good model for your photography and you're going to look like you know what you're doing.

Nov 21, 2014

A New Broom Sweeps Clean

Sure as the turning of the seasons there are new faces at the gym who insist on seeing your passport and taking your fingerprints to give you a clean towel. They've been told to check because of all those naughty faculty who sneek into the place without paying to exercise, even though those same faculty have long joined a shiny new gym down the street for the same money as our old worn-out, flooded floored, crumbling sauna'd, facility.

Every few years a new supervisor shows up and I have to explain all over again what it is we do... only I don't. I've fobbed that job off with the threat that if the students can't be bothered to step up for this kind of job, it's obviously not important enough to them... and therefore to me.

New brooms.

Recently, and for the second time in four years, the student government has decided that the Photo Arts Club has too much space in the administration building. Now the PAC is in a purpose built space of two darkrooms and a studio so I'm sure all the hundreds of existing and want to be clubs are constantly wondering why we get so much room when they are doubled and tripled up in offices. The last time we had this argument it was pretty obvious that the PAC predates the building and the student administration and it was further demonstrated that the space isn't even listed under the student union documents. In other words, at some point in the past we started using the student union as a convenient administrative framework for the club, to keep our finances in order by using them as an outside check, but in no way were we created as a student union club... could not have been since the club and the space were pre-existing. Sort of obvious yes?

So of course, with a new kid in charge of clubs we get another email that says we've got too much space. And not surprising to me, after we send back a "check your notes we did this four years ago" we get an email requesting the notes.

New Broom must have swept those files right out the door.

A new broom does not sweep clean, it just stirs the dirt around until it's softened up a bit. A new broom needs to be used carefully only in places where cleaning doesn't matter much until it becomes flexible and is able to get into the corners without damaging the walls.

A newish, experienced broom sweeps clean. A new broom just stirs the dirt around and makes everyone annoyed because of all the dust in the air and the useless noise of those stiff bristles.

An old broom? Worn out and tired can usually do the job but not as fast as it once did. There's complicated, crucial places in the house where those soft, worn bristles are still useful but not the heavy traffic areas. An old broom you keep for special jobs.

Nov 19, 2014

Iaido is like driving a car

Insurance companies, who exist on statistics, give lower premiums to people who have been driving for 10 or 20 years. That means, that even though you know all there is to know legally when you get your license (you understand it all) you are a better driver after 10 or 20 years of experience.

In classical music or just about any artistic pursuit more years of practice means better work. Newspaper cartoons, check out the first year of any cartoonist's work and compare it with that at 15 years.

Why would there be any doubt that there are things to understand which will only become apparent after a decade or two of practicing budo?

Now, can you learn how to cut someone with a sword after three weeks training? Absolutely, I've watched people cut mats after practicing for a single swing, I've watched people cut a mat in a single swing, first they've ever taken. The military all over the world trains people in a matter of weeks or months to be able to kill other people.

But that's not what we're talking about when we talk about the budo is it? You don't start practice of the sword if you're interested in MMA and you don't practice MMA if you want to kill the enemies of your country on some foreign shore.

Bottom line, if it was easy to understand the budo, the guys at the top would find a way to make it harder.

Nov 17, 2014

I Don't Look Like My Sensei

A friend of mine in Japan expressed some sadness a few years ago when reporting on a national iaido championships over the sameness of everyone's iai. This wasn't really all that surprising of course, with a set of judges who have standardized idea of what they want to see, you will get a serious attempt by the competitors to show that to them. It is the same for any judged sport such as gymnastics or figure skating, a certain set of expectations that are going to be met by those who move through the rounds so that as you get closer to the finals the sameness increases.

In those western sports at least you will get kata (routines) that mix up the kihon (basic jumps and spins) but in iai there is not even this chance to innovate. The kata are selected from a small set and everyone will perform them. Closest to the ideal will win.

What does vary? When a koryu kata is requested, then it's your chance to show your individual stuff.


You still have to get the approval of the judges and that means compromise. My sensei is considering challenging for 8dan and has been told that he will need to modify his koryu style because most of the judges practice another koryu style and expect to see things a certain way.

If you want to win competitions or pass gradings you will perform what the judges require of you. That may irritate some but you are free not to compete or grade. It's not up to you to set the standards, you accept the judgement of those who do when you stand in front of them. Otherwise don't stand in front of them.

You think a gymnast at an international level says to herself "I've got a better way to land a dismount and it involves running three steps forward"? Maybe a diver says "I think this dive calls for a giant splash at the end"? They aren't going to go very far are they? Yet what difference does sticking a landing make?

The complication comes when you add in the martial aspect of budo, when you start thinking that iai isn't a set of ideal physical techniques to be approached. I was once compared to a very talented Japanese iaido champion who has won the nationals at just about every rank. As I started puffing out my chest my sensei, who was translating at the moment, pointed a finger at me and said "That's not a compliment! The style is robotic, you hit every key point but you haven't developed any spirit".

At higher rank gradings the judges are instructed to start looking for this spirit in the challengers. By 5dan in my organization you are supposed to be technically perfect so what else do you differentiate on? This is something that you don't see in the three meter springboard. "OH his spirit was great for that last dive, you could see the intensity in his eyes. He ought to get high marks for that one". OK you got me, think back to sticking a landing in gymnastics. Think balance and poise.

The focus in koryu iai is something a little different, it has much less to do with standards and obtaining grades and winning tournaments. At least it should. In my opinion.

You see how much trouble I have making statements about koryu? It's not monolithic, it's individual and I don't even teach my koryu the way my sensei taught it to me. Well no, that's not accurate, my koryu doesn't look like his but I certainly teach it and perform it as he taught it to me. You see, I'm a different size, I weigh more and my injuries are different than his so he taught me to do things the way he figured I should do them, not necessarily the way he does them.

This includes the little style things, the twitches and bobs that juniors figure are so very important. Some things I was taught and maintain, some things I was taught and my sensei has moved away from, or back to, but where we differ makes no difference. If we can both show how the movement allows no opening, or permits a response to an unexpected attack, we're both correct. You can tell the same story in two different ways to an adult.

Don't try that with kids, I found that out when I read mine bedtime stories and changed the words. I was instantly benched and mom put back in because they weren't interested in hearing a different story. You read it as it was written or you get out of the bedroom. So be it, different situations call for different actions. When in a grading you do what the judges want, when on your own practicing your koryu you do what makes most sense to you at the time. In one case you have the feedback of the judges. In the other you have your sensei and if he's not there you have kasso teki.

With a grading you never have to ask why you passed or failed, you were close enough or you weren't. With the koryu it comes down to "I don't look like my sensei.... why?"

Nov 15, 2014

Fifteen Good Years

Something my son said the other day triggered a quick calculation in my head. I figure I might have another 15 good years to do what I want to do with my life. After that I'm likely going to be doing a lot of sitting around or mouldering.

So when the "powers that be" start to do what they inevitably do, I find I'm much more inclined to just let them do it. I've done my kicking against the watzits and it's time for the youngsters to step up. The fact that they don't seem inclined isn't of much concern to me. If they've decided it's more valuable to be a victim than to fix the problem maybe they're right. We didn't fix the problems did we?

I was following a conversation on the Kendo World forum the other day and the folks were complaining about an iaido demo with anime masks involved. It was cute and why the hell not. Life is too short to be so serious about a hobby like iai. One of the posts linked to an ad for a video of opening demonstrations at the Kyoto Taikai, a few opening kata from some of the giants in the iaido world demonstrating the kendo federation standard set for the rest of the demonstrators.

As I watched all I could think was "life is too short to watch the old farts futzing around with their sageo". Giants and heroes they may have been, I suspect they'd be the first to tell you they were past their "best by" date. You've got to respect the career that allowed them to go out there and do their iai without worrying what they looked like. Who knows, maybe if I'm still breathing in 20 years I'll even do a similar demonstration to show folks I'm still breathing, but for now I've got a narrowing window to get where I want to be and I'll fast forward through demonstrations of old folks trying to get arthritic fingers to tuck string under too-tight straps.

On the other hand, I seem to have less power and respect than I did ten years ago, maybe I won't be asked to demonstrate at all, maybe I can just sit back in the audience and enjoy myself with an ice cream while I tell the unfortunate kid sitting beside me how we did it in the old days.

Where do I need to go for my personal goals? First, I need another winter like the last, full of finishing off book projects that I started 20 years ago. I'm well into one on a couple of the "other" iai schools we practice, I have one sitting with the head of style who is proofing and will likely get back to me if I poke him, and then I'm going to look at my master list to see what else needs doing. All those books are going to be left for my students so that they can read it ten years after I'm gone and wish they'd read it while I was here so they could ask me what the hell I meant.

Yeah, I've been there. You always figure sensei is going to be around forever so you don't have to write it down and ask.

Trust me, ask now, while sensei can still show you what he means.

After this coffee I'm heading for the photo studio to do some selfies. That's another thing I've got to get at, fourty or fifty years of photographs... no wait, I don't know where my old film negatives are... ten or fifteen years of digital shooting on a two terabyte drive on my desk. Would be nice to get that stuff worked into some photo books along with my writing and get them out there before that drive craps out and I lose the lot. Another project for the winter months. I need to start thinking like Nobuyoshi Araki and put out a book a month for the rest of my life. I need to go to Japan and hang out with Araki and the rest of the Japanese photographers from his generation who are still around.

Why wasn't all this digital wonder-stuff around when I was younger? The ease of video these days keeps escaping me, it's too far beyond what I'd ever imagined. If I'd had digital cameras when my budo career was at it's height.... now that my joints are shot and I'm 40 pounds heavier I'm not producing anything video that will impress anyone. Sure it's good enough for instruction but nothing whiz bang. On the other hand, what video I do have from a decade ago might indicate my amazingness was mostly in my own head.

Ah that golden age when budoka didn't have stairs to the second floor of their houses.

When you're old enough for people to want to film you, you're too old, which is why I'm not too fussed about doing more videos. I likely will, but I'm not keen to do it like the books. Now writing, that's an ability that doesn't disappear with age. I can write exactly what it should be, or what it was, but demonstrating it? Not so much as they say.

I'm already on this earth more than twice the amount of time I thought I would be, so I'm on borrowed ground. How about you? Anything you're waiting to do? What are you waiting for? Life is too short to watch old men futzing around with their sageo, or to watch re-runs of bad 80s sitcoms because you're tired from a hard day of sitting around at work.

You think 15 years is a lot of time? Trust me it's going to go by like water over a bridge. Listen to the old fart!

Less making money, more making art!

Nov 15, 2014

It's not always you

In most budo clubs I know sensei says, at some point or other, "even if I'm not talking to you, I'm talking to you". It's always a good idea to listen to sensei correct someone else because in all liklihood you are making the same mistake. This is especially true if you're at around the same experience level as the guy getting corrected.

But sometimes, good, advanced students who pay close attention do themselves an injury by listening to corrections to beginners. Not all corrections are suited to all students and beginners are often expected to do things differently. By correcting themselves to the beginner level an advanced student can hold themselves back until sensei notices and asks them why they are still acting like babies.

So here's a quick and dirty guide to corrections in class.

1. if you're the newest kid on the block sensei is talking to you. No matter what.
2. but some things you ought to just store in the closet until you're told to fish them out. Deal with it.
3. if you're about the same pay grade as the kid getting reamed, you're getting reamed too.
4. if you're up the ladder by a lot, you may not be the one getting corrected but it's still a good bet to listen since you may be teaching your own beginners some day
5. listen anyway, it's polite and sensei may make a joke.
6. even if you're sensei, listen to yourself, the joke may be funny

Nov 12, 2014

Sensei, teachers and guys you learn from

The Kendo Federation and other such multi-art organizations with standardized curricula can create some confusion in students about who is in charge, who's their teacher and who you learn from.

At a koryu seminar recently I found myself going into a bit of a rant about it all. I was standing in front of a room full of not-students, that is, a bunch of people who were not my direct students. We were all there to practice with my teacher, the fellow who taught the teachers of 99% of those who weren't his direct students.

So far so good, but in the last several years I have heard such things as "our Japanese sensei" and "Joe sensei says" so I felt compelled to try and explain things. I can get a bit hard-assed about this stuff.

Simply put, in the koryu you have one sensei and that's it. It doesn't matter who his sensei is, or who else may be around who knows stuff. You can learn from lots of people but you've got one person who is in charge of what, when and how much you know.

Never a problem when you're in the boonies with a single teacher who isn't part of a larger organization. (Almost the definition of koryu organizational structure.) It never crosses anyone's mind to think about "our French sensei". Did that sound strange? That's the first problem isn't it? A Japanese teacher trumps any amount of experience from a local teacher according to a lot of budo students (who perhaps have little experience with Japanese people). It's a sort of reverse racism where folks assume an inborn quality... well OK it's straight out racism isn't it? I know one very high ranked Japanese-born Western teacher who has decided that his mission is to get the Japanese themselves to understand the depth of knowledge that exists in his art outside of Japan. He's got an uphill battle against both the Japanese and western students. A prophet is never respected in his home town, and it's pretty easy for western students to assume that any Japanese must know more than their local teacher. Your dad never knows as much as the neighbour down the street.

One result of being in a larger organization is a mixing of authority. In the Kendo Federation there is a standard set of practice for kendo, and standard sets of kata for iai and jo. Iaido still mixes in some koryu to the grading system but jo has removed the koryu completely. Kendo is kendo, like judo is judo and aikido is aikido. These arts are all taught as parts of a larger whole, aikido somewhat less so than the two competitive arts which have to teach to a set of competition rules but all three have a larger view than just sensei and his students. In these cases it's easy to see that you have many sensei... but even here you really don't. You have one sensei (call him coach if you want) and perhaps many teachers who help train you. You fight for or practice in one club with one guy in charge and everyone else is a trainer. Having multiple trainers sort of muddies the idea of one sensei per student. In competition it's all sort of moot, we all know who won the fight so we all know what works and what doesn't, at least in the ring. In Aikido there is no real proving ground so we get seminars where half the students are saying "well in our club we do it like this"... ouch, the competition becomes who knows the most ways to ignore what the seminar leader just showed. You don't see much competition in the koryu, which is sort of good and bad. Good because it means there is still room for variation in the teaching, not so good in that the art never gets stressed, never gets tested since the era of dueling in the back streets of Edo is over. You have one teacher of koryu who, if he likes you, might pass on the secret methods of winning a fight, but how does anyone know it works? At least that trick your kendo sensei showed you can be checked your next match, and maybe one of your other trainers also showed you a trick. As I said, it can get muddy.

Jodo in the Kendo Federation is all Shindo Muso Ryu all the time. The seitei jo is taken directly from the koryu and the word from high up is that you can learn all the lessons within seitei so there is no need to include the koryu in the examinations. I suspect it's a bit more practical than that and has more to do with the difficulty of getting people to attempt 8dan with a koryu component. Regardless, there really isn't any need to include koryu for the reason I was first given for it's inclusion in the tests... to keep the koryu alive. In iai there are several koryu at the root of the standardized set and that means that students may not be inspired to go further. Putting in a requirement for a koryu kata in a test will require them to at least meet a koryu sensei to learn a couple of kata. Jodo is all one koryu and by learning the standard set you've also learned quite a large chunk of the first few levels of the koryu. In that case why not go on?

There is competition in iai and jo, but it's not open like kendo, it's closed like gymnastics with two people approaching an ideal form that is desired by the judges. Great for standardization and a really good argument for studying with multiple trainers, preferably each one of the judges so that you can learn what makes each of them crazy (don't do that) and happy (do that). Large organizations with multiple instructors teaching the same thing in a standardized way equals confusion in the student mind as to what a sensei is.

Rank also confuses the idea of a sensei. These organizations hand out ranks which are applicable to the organization and to what is tested (the standardized set of kata). Students see these ranks and see that higher ranks teach lower ranks. This leads to the idea that a higher rank trumps sensei status. In other words, your 5dan sensei teaching you koryu gets outranked by a visiting 7dan who teaches you some koryu. Not strictly relevent. Even if the 7dan is your teacher's teacher, your teacher is your sensei.

First sensei is your sensei. Never forget that. The first will always be the most important, that's your "genetic inheritance" the basis of your personal art. What you learn first can be modified and added to but it's your base and you ought to respect the guy who gave it to you for that reason alone.

Can you ever change sensei? Sure you can. If you move to a new town as a beginner you need supervision and so you can switch to another sensei. If you're a big boy and most of your training is training and not learning, maybe you stay with your original sensei and visit when you can for touch-ups.

Has your sensei died? You can change, when your sensei dies the line breaks and you can either stay on your own or connect with another sensei. There is a peculiar sort of idea in the west that if your sensei is Japanese from Japan and he dies, you have to go with his successor in Japan, even if that guy is less experienced than you are. This is rather silly from a teaching point of view, what can a junior teach you? I mean aside from the observation that you can learn from anyone, it doesn't make much sense to have a sensei who is less experienced than you are. What does make sense is if you want to stay with the same organization and a person who is less experienced than you is in the top position in that organization. What you're talking about there is administrative jobs rather than teaching positions and in many places rank does not equate with organizational position. In fact I suspect it rarely does unless you're in a place where sensei has to do it all because of few students to take over the paperwork. Chief administrator does not imply chief instructor, and a good administrator will make it clear to higher ranked instructors that he respects them as such. Nothing splits an organization faster than some "jumped up junior" telling his betters what they ought to teach.

Even in the case of a koryu lineage where your Japanese sensei has a student who takes over the dojo and that student is more experienced than you are, it is not automatic that a new sensei-student relationship is created. Sempai-kohei to sensei-deshi may not be an easy transition for either party and either side can break it at that moment.

Now do I go on and on like this to my own students? No of course not, and I don't actually care who they learn from or who they call their sensei. If they want to call me sensei, and my sensei their sensei that's fine with me. They're still my student and I'm going to worry about them.

On the other hand, if they wander off and start calling some stranger I've never seen their sensei I'm also good with that but I'm going to happily turn their extra-technical instruction over to that stranger. One less headache for me and I hope the other guy accepts them as a "student" rather than as a student so that he actually does put himself on the line for them when they need it.

See, this isn't all just an academic exercise. In a very real way I will put myself on the line for my sensei, I'll support him in his fights and follow his lead. I'll also back up my students and put myself on the line for them. This is the koryu we're talking here, rather than the standardized organizational kata. In that case the best thing to do for your students is to send them out often to learn from other judges, to spread them out so they are as standardized as the kata and they have the best chance of passing their next grade. In fact, at higher ranks in any organization the more you get your face in front of the senior ranks, the better your chances.

But never misunderstand the situation. The senior ranks in an organization like the kendo federation will have a generalized, standardized responsibility to the students and the higher ranks and the organization itself. Something like loyalty to the company you work for. That's far different from the family-like situation I'm talking about in the koryu.

Nov 11, 2014

I'm Becoming My Mother

My granny used to say that bad things came in threes. I used to figure that too, when I was young, and didn't know any better. Now I realize that bad things just keep coming.

As we get older we discover that we're "becoming our father" or mother. Well my mother was a rather antisocial person who was a front-line health worker for most of her life. When she got older she had less and less inclination to interact with anyone.

Me too.

It's because it seems like nobody ever learns anything, or even remembers anything. Of course what I'm dealing with is youth who haven't learned yet (but figure they know it all) and institutions which have no memory at all because they don't pay people enough to stay and remember.

The University gym where I've taught aikido, iaido, self defense and TKD for over 30 years doesn't remember who I am from one year to the next as the kids they hired move on to real jobs and the next ones figure we need another zumba-spin class. I stopped using the weight room and sauna because both are usually broken. (A weight room is broken when you are constantly scared some idiot is going to drop a weight on you and when some 70-pounder is at the deadlift station with 20 pounds on the olympic bar). Bought my own weights and built my own sauna at home and now I wonder how I spent so many years and so much money up on the hill. I used to help fix the place when something needed doing but when we went from members to clients I figured it was someone else's job. Apparently it wasn't.

Every year I have to justify myself and the club, the very club that earns the University many thousands of dollars annualy for the May seminar.

I rejoined the University Photo Arts Club after almost 40 years (I was a member in the '70s) when I got a call for support saying the student government wanted to take it's studio and turn it over to some other student club. Since the Photo Arts club predates the building, let alone the student government (there were at least three before this one while the PAC happily ignored them all) the attempt failed, but not until a lot of stress and fuss was created. Well two or three years later some bright new light in the student government has decided that we have three rooms too many... presumably the two darkrooms and the studio. These are purpose-built rooms for something that should never have been under the student government in the first place and now we have to start the whole process of justifying ourselves all over again because some new kid has a new job and figures the best thing to do is change everything that went before.

Speaking of the May seminar, I find myself justifying it once more. Next year will be the 25th edition but apparently some more new folks haven't a clue what it is or what it's for. We'll see what happens but you know, as each year goes along, as each new person has new ideas that I have to endure, I seem to have less energy to deal with it.

In the spring I plan to build a dojo beside the sauna.

Nov 7, 2014

Saya no Uchi

On a recent seminar Ohmi sensei mentioned saya no uchi so I thought I'd write a bit on it. Among many things, Sensei said that his secret was in the scabbard, that one should win before drawing the sword, that to draw 100 times and win 100 times was just luck, to not draw was skill. Students frowned in confusion.

So a bit of background. Saya no uchi was one of the old names for iaido, and it would perhaps have originally meant exactly what it says. Stuff you do when your sword is in the scabbard.

Kono Hyakuren said that the secret of iai is in the scabbard, it would be masterful to defeat an opponent without drawing the sword but if forced, the crucial moment is when the sword leaves the scabbard. To win 100 times in 100 encounters is not the way of mortals, to win without drawing is the secret.

Yokoyama Hiromichi, in a letter from 1996 said that his teacher, Yamamoto Harusuke made this very clear. Iaijutsu is saya no uchi, Iai exists until kenjutsu takes part. Iai exists in the saya. If you fail to kill without quick kiritsuke and nukitsuke he draws his sword and now it is kenjutsu against kenjutsu.

Ohmi sensei said that you must obtain victory while the sword is still in the saya. This is a familiar concept to kendo, hit the opponent, then swing your shinai. It means, in a very practical way, that you must put your opponent at a disadvantage before attacking or the outcome will certainly be in doubt. It can also mean having the correct attitude, you will not win if you don't see a victory in your mind. Sun Tsu stated that victorious warriors obtain the win before going to war. Losers go to war and then seek to win. Think about the past few "asian wars" to understand this. Think about Afganistan, what was the mission? What were the parameters of victory? The very mention of "mission creep" usually means a war is about to be lost, or at the least not won.

Saya no uchi no kachi is sometimes interpreted as a moral, spiritual victory by not drawing the sword and this is often contrasted with the more "battle ready" idea of winning before striking. The Kendo Federation states that those who practice iai will develop a well trained, indomitable soul where the morality and character of budo is calmly possessed and this will so overwhelm the enemy that one will win without drawing the sword. They also mention winning before drawing of course. This overwhelming of the opponent is expressed physically in iai in the concept of nuki tsuke in Omori Ryu or the first two kata of kendo federation iai, to suppress the opponent with the draw so that if he backs down before saya banari, the point where the sword leaves the scabbard, all is finished.

Up to now we have saya no uchi simply being the name for iaido. We have the idea of iaido being that stuff that happens when the sword is in the scabbard, that iaido "is" saya no uchi. Then we have the idea that iaido exists because the sword is in the saya, and that victory is already present in the saya. "The fight is yours to lose".

To extend this a bit further, the idea of saya no uchi can be considered as a metaphore. You have a sword in a saya, you have skill in the budo and can defeat any opponent, you have a strong army, a nuclear weapon. Big Dogs don't pay much attention to small dogs, so a man with skills in iaido doesn't need to draw his sword out of fear. He can withold it and thus defuse the fight. A small dog is scared and declares his willingness to fight the big dog, the big dog accepts or declines, only if he accepts will there be a fight. If you have no weakness, no openings in your kamae there can be no attacks that succeed and so no reason to attack (and thus open yourself up to a counterattack since no attack is ever without an opening).

It is fear that is the problem. Fear causes attack and there are many types of fear. There is much talk lately about the end of the American Empire and one of the main features of the end of any empire has been that series of small indecisive wars which occur as the empire tries to maintain its dominance and does nothing more than prove it no longer has the heart for a fight. The USA has a military which is stronger than the next five or six largest militaries combined, but it (thankfully) has no will to use it. I say thankfully because my country is, and has always been, a logical target for expansion. With the loss of the Soviet Union there is no challenge to the firepower of the USA and no reason to get into small proxy wars so all should be peaceful, a big, big dog sunning itself on the front steps. Yet this giant has gone into Iraq, Afganistan and who knows where else, expending old munitions, granted, but chasing whisps, bits and scraps of something called "terrorists" and creating far more of them than it has eliminated. There is nothing like a decades long war on the borders to prove that the old Roman Army hasn't got it any more. And why? Fear, fear from the leaders who won't commit to a major war of extermination and expansion (those days are over), fear that is cynically used to keep the leaders in power and distract the population with "dangerous enemies".

Better to keep the sword in the scabbard, better to simply ignore the little yapping dog nips around the heels. The little cur will run out of bravado and the fear will take over, or perhaps its owner will drag it away for fear that the sword will be drawn.

Saya no Uchi

Nov 6, 2014

The Right to Regret

Many years ago I was a qualified CPR instructor and it was during that period that I was sitting in the sauna and noticed I'd managed to put my heart into fibrillation. I excitedly told all the other guys about it and made them feel my pulse, and then went home to bed. Around 4am I woke in a sweat, it hadn't fixed itself (amazing) and I told my wife who phoned the hospital. Those folks said "hang up and phone the ambulance" but she figured it was fine, she'd drive me.

Three shots of digoxin later they almost hit me with the paddles but I went to the washroom first and on the walk I flipped back to sinus rhythm.

Despite being a qualified CPR guy who knew about such things, I ignored my own knowledge and carried on. I would never have regretted my decisions if the heart had stopped that night, but perhaps I learned something. I think mostly I learned that not all wives keep their husbands healthy because they insist hubby get medical attention when they need it, but I also learned (again) that I can be an idiot. I never had anybody to blame for that little episode, not even my wife since it's not her job to look after my health and well being.

I have taught self-defence for 30 years (seems it isn't needed any more so not this year). Last weekend I hooked up with a girl and we were both into some stick-play. I was really enjoying it, even when she went a bit too far, so I didn't say anything. Nothing like a good jolt of pain induced adrenalin to cloud the judgement but oh what a rush. Today though, I am regretting the giant bruise on my ribs. All my years of telling people to look after themselves, to make their intentions clear, to break away and get out of situations they don't want to be in and I end up with my lower ribs bent by a playmate. Thing is, I can't blame her really, I agreed to let her swing sticks at me and I didn't get out of the way fast enough. Maybe my regret will turn into a lesson I can use if someone comes at me with a sword instead of a stick.

The one thing I would not want to happen is for the government to decide that I can't consent to getting hit with a stick, then I wouldn't learn anything except the cost of not getting any exercise through my pseudo-dangerous hobbies.

Nov 4, 2014

Kata and Theory in Niten Ichiryu

I received a question about Niten Ichiryu recently which touched on kata and theory and real-life fighting (as any discussion of Musashi almost inevitably does.

The question: Can we find the principles and techniques Musashi talks about in the Go Rin no Sho in the modern kata of HNIR? Musashi describes a wild, realistic fight scenario and wrote about fundamental, universal fighting principles with a sword that give you the chance to live. There is nothing static or no "ritualized" guidelines that tell you "stop here...hold your sword here...go forward and then stop and cut now - do this and this and this...." which we can see in the kata today from HNIR.

Good question. The Go Rin no Sho contains 5 kata, the nito seiho and depending on how you translate those instructions they are actually quite specific and are read as guidelines like any other descriptions of kata. Those who study the Niten Ichiryu read (or should read) the book quite often and to us it does read like a manual.

The other chapters which contain more theory are read quite widely by students of the Japanese sword from many arts and some of what Musashi wrote is more or less the common language of the sword. Hold the sword in the last two fingers, see the opponent but also see his intention, these are now "old chestnuts" (theory) of the arts. So yes indeed, my study of Niten Ichiryu includes and is informed by what is written in the Go Rin no Sho, always has been. Most of what I know can be found in that book. I just finished a koryu iaido seminar with my sensei, Goyo Ohmi, and he is currently reading a copy of the Go Rin no Sho which he picked up at a rummage sale. He advised everyone in the school to read it as well, but to watch out for bad translations as he found one that was completely off base and he "threw it away". I hope he wasn't talking about my version, which he may not have found yet on his tablet.

Question 2: Can you give some information on which year or in which period of time and by whom these kata were founded?

The five Nito Seiho kata are contained in the Go Rin no Sho so they are "original". Can each line of Niten get their Nito kata from what is written? Perhaps with some effort. I know that the first time I read the book (after I started practicing the ryu) I only got the kamae from the descriptions, I couldn't get the technique. After many more readings and thought I can get closer but won't ever be really confident that what I was taught is exactly what Musashi taught.

Is that a problem?

There is no film, photograph or detailed manual of Musashi's techniques. This is the same with all Japanese schools of sword, there is much to be filled in from any of the writings. Things change over time. Look at all the lines of Niten, calculate generations back to the split-off of each, consider that we all start with the kamae and perhaps we could come back to a root movement. All lines and all teachers emphasize some aspects of the technique, their students take this as gospel and reinforce or damp it down as they teach their own students. This is how things change but if the core remains I figure we're good.

As for the rest of the kata, the kotachi seiho and the tachi seiho, I don't know when they came into the school. I do know that most of the lines of Niten use the same names and look roughly the same so they have existed through many splits and must be old. I know that in my line there were three Santo generations (hence my line being "santo ha") before Aoki sensei who was the seventh head. I assume Grandfather Santo knew what Grandchild Santo was being taught so I assume a conservative time there, not much change through three generations. Aoki sensei once commented that the two extra nito sets (sessa and aikuchi) were "recently created) so those must be younger than the shoto set or the single sword set. Those five sets came to Aoki sensei from the Santo generations so I have always assumed that the kodachi and tachi sets were there at least by the time of the first Santo sensei, who would have been the fourth head. My guess is that those kata came in at minimum by the third head, so Musashi's student or grand-student which would, in all probability mean that Musashi was teaching them but didn't include them in the Go Rin no Sho since they were not all that unusual at the time. The nito seiho were worth noting down and Musashi suggested they were his entire school. Not being able to read his actual words, I might suggest he meant that they were what he considered most important, or perhaps that they contained all of his wisdom in one place. Or maybe he did indeed only teach those five kata to his students. This last I doubt very much.

The two extra sets? There are photos of Aoki sensei in bogu in the nito seiho kamae with shinai, he was a kendo teacher, and the extra nito sets seem quite suited to nito kendo so perhaps they were developed by Aoki sensei himself? I'm not that much of a scholar of the school to know.

Techniques drift, theory tends to stick. Theory can be expressed in many physical forms so kata change with the generations.

Nov 3, 2014

Stuff my Sensei Said 1

My sensei said that some advice from Japanese Admiral Yamamoto on training went: Show them, explain it to them, make them sweat and then praise them.

My sensei said that he uses: Show them, explain it to them, make them sweat, then criticize them, tell them what's wrong.

If you praise students they think they understand it and stop improving. Just tell them "dame" (dah may) and make them do it again.

Nov 3, 2014

Off In the Wilderness

One of my long-time internet acquaintances is from South America and has expressed some concerns about his own zen ken ren iai (seitei) practice (is he up to date) what he's teaching his students (are they learning correctly) and his own conservatism (demanding more from his junior students) which might be mirroring the Japanese-led creep toward higher standards for higher grades (the lower pass rates as students pile up at the higher ranks).

Been there, still there. I started my iai practice in 1983 with a bit of Muso Shinden Ryu koryu and worked away at that mostly by myself for four years. In 1987 I found a teacher who was Kendo Federation but it was another four years before the CKF organized an iai section and the first gradings were held. We started with whatever we had picked up about the zen ken ren iai, which was the first seven techniques, most of the instructors here having left Japan when there were only 7 in existance. Books were our guide for the kata from 7 to 10 while we worked hard to build students and contact others in order to bring a teacher from Japan. Once we started our annual seminar in Guelph we picked up the last three kata and got the latest instruction on all 10. As we learned this we adjusted our standards to the new levels, keeping to a two year cycle. The first year we taught the "changes", then at the grading we passed students on the old standard but noted that next year they had to change. The second year we would deduct points for anyone who hadn't changed yet.

Over the years, as we have kept up through the seminar and our own skills have increased, it has been hard to resist the urge to demand instant changes from challengers, and to judge to our own skill level rather than to what is reasonable for beginners. In other words, as we get better we naturally tend to figure beginners should get better too. OK maybe if our teaching skills are increasing with our knowledge the students might learn a bit faster, but gradings are as much about reminding us what the students know as they are about meeting some sort of standard in our heads. You look at the first few students with a generous heart and you judge the rest based on what the first few know (always provided they meet the minimum standard of course). If you go in hard-assed, the pass rates are low.

But low pass rates say as much about the instructors as they do about the students don't they? How are your teaching skills if your students can't pass your standards? Or we might be talking about a bell curve here, just set the pass percent and judge on a sliding scale to make sure you meet the required standard. In that case it doesn't matter how talented your students are, the curve will ensure the result you want overall, you're not working to an objective standard any more, but against fellow students. The best of the bunch will pass, the worst, over a standard or not, will not.

What about the piling up of rank that is supposedly happening in Japan? That country won't give out anything beyond 8dan and the society is a very aged one, resulting in a lot of older folk with 8dan. Since you really don't want all that many folks at the upper level of any organization (a good recipe for a split) you wind down the pass rate which then starts to trickle down until beginners are being asked for a lot. If we're full at 8dan, then 7dan becomes the obtainable goal to shoot for. 7 starting to get plugged up?...

Is that the best way to handle the situation? There is the further level of hanshi that helps, but what about putting in a 9dan once more? not my call, so instead, what about trying to reverse the declining numbers of students overall and making more regional divisions, smaller in area but larger in numbers. That will open up more spaces for more 8dan and relieve the pressure on the beginners.

But again, not our call here in the west, and to tell the truth, not our problem, we're not hachidan heavy over here. Except that it is our problem. We take our cue from our admiration of all things Japan and we grade according to their standards for that reason. We also take our cue from Japanese teachers who come to the west and tell us our standards aren't the same as Japan. Our official standards? Not much change there in the last 15 years that I've been paying attention, the guidelines haven't been re-written, we're talking the unwritten rules here and folks outside Japan ought to consider whether we need to tighten those rules or not. Consider carefully why you are changing them and how you are cranking up the fail rates. When I was a grad student our department went through a review and they were told that if they were going to demand PhD level work from Master's students they ought to give them a PhD.

This is the situation as I see it within the Kendo Federation, but a bigger question arises. The main concern of those who are out of touch with the latest standards of kendo federation iai should be to get in touch with them. Kendo iai is just that, the iai of that federation, and it has no wider application in the world. It is what the FIK countries use to give out rank that is applicable in that organization, it isn't a worldwide standard set of iai. My friend commented that he felt he had learned a lot over the years of training but wasn't sure that applied to his Kendo Federation iai. It might, it might not. His students are passing their gradings so he's likely not too far off the path, but why is he on the path at all?

Koryu iai is really the place where those outside the centers of Kendo iai should be, as koryu is almost pathologically un-standardized. We can see arguments over where to put the thumb on the tsuba in two students of the same teacher. Now you get that sort of concern in seitei too, but there you have a "true way" so to speak, it's whatever the committee in Japan decides it is. For a koryu student the answer to the question isn't what a committee says, it's "what will work". Many things work, so there is room for individual learning through long and serious study on one's own. In other words, a student out of touch with the Kendo world is out of touch with seitei but can still advance in iaido by working honestly and critically on his own koryu.

What he learns may or may not apply to seitei, but the only way to know that is to be in front of a teacher on the committee, or one who is up on the current standards. I make no claims that this is good or bad, but it is the way of seitei. There we have an answer, there we have a standard that is applied to a rank structure. There we have standards, methods and instructional techniques that can and do change over time. Without being in touch with the federation it will be difficult to keep up. Just a fact of life in the wilderness.

So why do those in the wilds practice seitei? Supply. Supply of opportunity to learn a set of iai (there are lots of seitei semnars, they're very open to the public) and supply of instructors themselves (anyone qualified can teach seitei to anyone, it's the nature of the beast) so those in the wilderness are likely to have learned seitei, and will have more chances for instruction due to multiple teachers drifting around the planet. It's a lot less likely that someone will run across a koryu iai than seitei iai and those who wish to practice the art will practice what they can.

I have no conclusions to make here, it's hard in the wilderness. My solution was to work hard to establish a group large enough to bring in instruction which we've done for 25 years now. It happens that all this tightening up of rank has also changed the dynamics for us, and we may once again find ourselves out in the wilderness. This time we're in a much different situation, and as some have suggested, perhaps it's time to "do it for ourselves".

It's not a wilderness if a bunch of you live there.

Oct 31, 2014

We're Going to Talk

I see that Nigeria is in talks with Boko Harum. It's all well and good to come over all idealogue and refuse to talk to those who are in a disagreement with you, but to do that you have to be overwhelmingly more powerful than your foes. In the usual case, you have to be able to defeat them militarily and be willing to annex their territory to make sure they don't rise again to fight you. Get them down and keep them there.

If you just punch them on the nose and walk away it isn't going to do much.

Then there are the ones who have a god on their side. In this case you can't even defeat and oppress them, their power is as absolute as their god and they will be victorious after you're both dead. No amount of beating them up is going to make any difference.

No, check out the history of warfare and you'll find a very small era of kings fighting kings with professional armies to settle disputes... no wait, there were treaties afterward weren't there. Even in the age of European wars there was the talking afterward and if the talking wasn't done well there was another war just as soon as folks forgot what a horrid experience war is.

Then there was the age of the duel, "Gentlemen can we settle this amicably... no? Then take your positions". A duel was what happened if someone refused to talk, and if both men survived, there was talking afterward to make sure honour was satisfied.

So how much talking is done in your martial art? Does your budo training include life lessons in how to listen, how to reason, how to argue and make your point? Or do you just study how to punch someone in the nose?

In my local used book store (sadly now gone) there was a book titled "Logical Self Defence" in the martial art section. It was all about logic, how to tell a crap argument from a good one. I laughed when I first saw it there but later I thought it was good right where it was.

I'm tempted to write a book, maybe "Logical Budo: The Ultimate Self Defence".

Ad Hominum, an attack on the man rather than the argument. Probably the most common logic in politics today and certainly the most effective. This is the reason attack ads exist.
Example: "Your plan to redevelop the docklands is garbage because you mistreat your dog."
Application: You try to punch a man in the nose while he has a sword in his hand.

Oct 28, 2014

Budo as the Art of War II

A bit more on the idea that budo is training for war. Mostly I'm talking about the koryu and yes I know folks argue over budo vs koryu, I had the same argument with my brother when I was a kid. I had a little metal wheelbarrow and he said it was steel. We had a fistfight because he was just wrong.

Further to the last piece, of course one can use individual combat as an analogy for the movements on a battlefield, but a much better analogy would be chess, or go, or even better, American football since it's a team sport and deals with capturing territory. Musashi did command troops at one point, and was talking to a single reader when he wrote, so the analogy between individual swordsmanship and larger battlefield movements was natural to him. But it's a bit of a stretch to assume that one could command troops in the field by studying Hyoho Niten Ichiryu.

It's actually somewhat questionable that one can command the students in one's dojo with the skills developed in any martial art. The arts that are large enough and widespread enough to compare to armies might be kendo and judo, both are somewhat united, but with a bit of reflection one can see that's because of an external influence, the international competition. Again, a "game" seems better at getting cohesive team (ie warfare) skills out of people than an "art". I will assume we can't come up with a non-sportified martial art that's of any comparable size and united in such a way as those two.

As Karl Friday pointed out many years ago in this discussion, both Olympic and military marksmen use guns, but that doesn't mean that biathlon would be great training for desert or even mountain warfare. Sasen (the key technique of Niten Ichiryu) will certainly end a duel in a quick and decisive manner, but I think even the old British Army proved to themselves the ineffectiveness of such a direct attack (with bayonet fixed) on entrenchments and heavy gunfire by the end of the first world war. Bravery and skill with a sword would not have done much better in a frontal assault on the trenches of Kyoto in 1467.

The koryu generally don't address fundamentals like logistics and managing people. Yes the Gorin no Sho actually does have something to say about such things but that's not core to the school itself. I don't know too many koryu instructors who are also teaching small and large unit tactics and logistics, or even how to manage the front office in a similar way, so OK perhaps the closest we've got is Musashi's Gorin if you stipulate that it's the supplemental textbook for Niten Ichiryu training. Again, a stretch.

Is there a single koryu ken school out there that teaches even paired fighting, let alone fighting in units of three or four? Dueling one on one isn't warfare.

Speaking of which, and returning to the commercial comments. George Silver, c1600 was complaining about Saviolo and that snobby upper class rapier stuff taught for money, instead of good old mutton and beer English backswording.

Same time as Musashi complaining about Katori Shinto Ryu.

Commodification and the complaints about it are not new, think about the UFC and Spike TV (is that still a thing?) which led to stuffed full classes of American and Canadian jiu jutsu.

Advertising works, get a movie that features some martial art or another and you get a bunch of new students. But who stays and why? Always my question.

Here's another one, my old TKD instructor used to say that nobody stays in TKD for 10 years on the off chance that they'll get into a bar fight... how about staying in a koryu for 30 years so they can master all the great battlefield knowledge...

Oops, too danged old to hike from point A to B and then fight for 3 days without sleep. Best find some young guys and do the fast training program and send them instead.

Oct 26, 2014

Surface Area or Depth?

Lots of schools and kata or stick to one school and drill down deep? I listed all of the kata we do in our dojo and came up with 240 or so in six or seven different schools. How useful is that? What about sticking to 12 kata and doing them really well, is that better?

One art or many arts, one kata or many, it's the process that's the key to what you're trying to do, not the particular art.

For example, it's the concentration on what you're doing that provides the meditative benefits of practice, not the specific movement. You could be counting breaths, arranging flowers, making tea or tapping sticks together, as long as you're being mindful of what you're doing right now, in the moment, you aren't cycling through useless and destructive thoughts about the rest of your life.

So learning kata after kata of different weapons, or doing a single kata with deeper and deeper understanding would both be about equal for keeping your thoughts about the job and the wife to a minimum.

Another aspect would be to consider what the "founder" of your lineage knew... if he knew a little about a lot, he'd teach that, if he knew a lot about one thing, he might teach that. Unless you're making it up as you go, you teach what you know.

Third way of looking at big-kata-numbers schools would be as a "commercial" enterprise. Musashi made cracks about Katori Shinto Ryu being flashy "to attract students". Why wouldn't this be a simple statement of what actually happened back then, it happens now. Students like learning lots and lots of different kata and weapons, it gives the illusion of learning (stay on the steep part of the learning curve) and it's more fun that doing the same boring thing over and over again. Let's face it, those who choose martial arts for their self improvement over, say, zen sitting are probably a bit ADD to begin with, want new stuff all the time to distract them rather than just counting breaths and staring at the tip of their nose for hours, days and years.

Unemployed warrior, knows lots of moves with spear, sword, staff, and has no other job... lots of time to practice it all.... sogo bujutsu.

Later on you get a fellow with a job, wife, kids, Chamber of Commerce meetings, he may decide to concentrate on the sword since he likes that best... kenjutsu and the rest of it is "lost".

A generation or so later, a headmaster finds sword students a bit rare, and stick fighting becoming popular... hey we just decided to start teaching the ancient stick arts of our school! Battlefield tested!

In other words, why would the martial arts world of 1607 be so different than that of 2014? Students show up to learn how to be bad-butt fighters, and end up staying because.... well they're never really sure why but they do.

Along the way they may 1. become better people because martial arts make them better people or 2. become better because one becomes a better person as one gets older. Who knows?

Stick with the process, you can get the canoe across the lake with a teaspoon if you stick at it long enough.

Oct 24, 2014

Budo As The Art of War

Late 1500s Japan:

Trench warfare.

Volley firing in 3 ranks of 1000 guns each rank .

A battlefield with more guns on it than existed in all of Europe at the time...

Whatever would make anyone think that the koryu were to train people for war? You don't need, nor have you ever needed the kind of skills you learn in a koryu for a battlefield.

Even Musashi had to stretch it a bit more than it should ever be stretched when he suggested that an individual fight was somehow analogous to a battlefield. To see the big in the little is not a bad thing in itself, but don't confuse the little with the big. You can certainly draw lessons from individual training in a sword school and apply them to large fights, but nobody ever had to supply their sword with food and water for months at a time during fighting season. The actual battle might include feints and timing and all sorts of things you can look at in a sword school but as Musashi himself might have said, there's the timing of the accountant for getting your taxes in on time, the timing of the mechanic to change your oil before the big vacation trip. That was his point I suppose, the principles behind the kata of the sword school are a lot more important than the actual movements because the principles can be applied elsewhere. But having your sword at 45 degrees rather than 30 degrees when it's in hasso is a somewhat trivial matter if you are thinking about marching the third army onto the enemy's left flank.

The schools of sword in Europe that rose at about the same time were pretty much analogous to the ryuha I would suggest, and the fact that Japan took a couple centuries off from war had much more to do with the survival of the koryu than their inherent value as warfare training. The loss of the European schools would also be a function of those schools' usefulness on the battlefields of the west. Europe had 300 years of almost constant warfare during the Tokugawa era. Wars against each other and all the military might of the rest of the world. I'd suggest they found more efficient ways of training soldiers by 1900 than they had in 1600.

When I said no wars in Japan you might suggest I neglected to mention the many police actions against peasant revolts which were dealt with quite well by sword and spear. Organized forces with superior training facing peasants aren't going to require guns and cannon, blades will usually be enough so why break out the guns, especially if you don't want the peasants to have guns. If the peasants have guns the police are going to need cannon because superior weaponry makes up for inferior numbers. Do we learn that from the budo? No we learn that the fight is assumed to be sword on sword or close to it, and we rely on years-long skills to win, not a bigger sword or a repeating-sword-launcher. The budo are not efficient methods of coersion and killing.

Don't think war, think dueling with a weapon that you carry on your hip. As long as swords were fashionable in the west, sword schools lived. Take off the sword and the schools had better convert to sport or self-improvement classes, their use as practical tools has gone. The modern equivalent of the western dueling schools? You fill it in.

Budo creates the right mindset for the battlefield? I'm pretty sure my budo aren't anything like the training kids get at boot camp. My students seem to get more mule headed and independant with each passing year. (Years? What use is that when we need cannon fodder yesterday?) If I ordered Sei Do Kai to go charge that hill I'm pretty sure they'd flip me the bird and walk around it.

No, it's a different method of training and a different timescale altogether. Now all the good things about people that the budo are supposed to create, a sense of honour and loyalty, a sense of higher purpose than self-gratification, an ability to empathize with others, those are things that are desirable in recruits and officers because they can be bent toward the will of the politician who uses them, but they have to be modified and directed through boot camp before they can be put to military use. The Christmas truce in the trenches of 1914 was a nice story of sweetness and light and the officers on both sides made damned sure it wasn't repeated. Nobody wants to be killing large numbers of jolly good chaps, you've got to see the other guys as inhuman monsters.

The budo are not about seeing other people as inhuman monsters.

Oct 21, 2014

Let Praise Roll Off

Like water off a duck's back. We do this anyway don't we? Thousands of "attaboy" on the net, but they are all turned to acid in your mouth by a single jerk saying something bad. And then we decide to give up a bit more freedom, a bit more privacy to "end cyberbullying".
Thank the tigers for that. We aren't really built to weigh up the good and bad, the pros and cons of any action.... well actually yes we are, from a couple hundred generations back when we got the thinking parts of our brains, but the deeper parts, the parts we got from half-upright ancestors who shared the margins of the forest with the tigers couldn't afford to think too much. Hear a noise in the grass, jump! If there was nothing there, no big deal. If there was a tiger at least you've got a running start and you can maybe hope that your buddy wasn't so fast off the mark.

Assume the worst and you might be able to survive it. Assume the worst and you won't be disappointed if you're wrong. Assume the best and you're tiger-food.

So take on that negative stuff and 'ware the cyber-tigers in the cyber-grass.

Your sensei knows you don't listen to praise, so he doesn't give it to you. He just tells you what you're doing wrong and grunts when you get it right. You should do the same. If sensei does say "attaboy" you should just let it go over your head because the other thing we're really good at is putting things in the "done" bin. We glance at the road and make life-or-death decisions on that glance, we're already looking the other way when we pull out on a road that we just stuck into the "clear" bin.

When sensei says "good swing" we chuck that into the "got it" bin and stop working on our swing. We ought not do that. Nor ought we to assume that our opponent in a fight is going to act like we expect him to. We ought to reject the assumptions in the cause of continued existance and improvement.

Don't take on the praise, only the problems, look for the problems, assume the problems are there and keep working to overcome them. I can't tell you how many Aikido seminars I went to and watched the sensei demonstrate one thing only to have the students assume they saw something they didn't... and proceed to do whatever they had in the brain-cache under "shihonage". Same goes for any art, but I first figured it out in Aikido so special mention.

Rustle rustle... go ahead and jump, but if tiger is smart he rustled over there with his tail and now he's waiting over here with his mouth open waiting for you to land. Tigers don't plan, people do. Fake over there, trigger that assumption in your opponent and let him jump onto the point of your sword over here. Genetic inheritance be damned, instinct isn't always right. Learn to mix reactions with thought, let the reactions take care of themselves while you keep the rational brain running to make good choices as to which direction to jump.

Make your assumption that sensei's "attaboy" is a one time thing and not a certificate of completion. Make sure you look rather than assume when being taught.

Now carry that back with you, even if you get the "attaboy" and know you're doing it right, remember that you're getting older and skills drift. Make sure you look in the mirror, really look, and assume the worst. Expect to see your posture crumbling over the years, expect injury and age to slow you down a step or two and keep working at it.

You're supposed to reproduce fast, like before you're 20, then you're supposed to be Tiger bait for the youngsters so they can reproduce. Don't forget that.

Praise ought to roll right off.

Oct 20, 2014


Everyone who does iaido knows the meaning of riai right? Sure we do. The first kata of the kendo iai (seitei) or the znir iai or Muso Shinden or Muso Jikiden is Mae/shohatto.

Sitting in seiza you draw and cut across the opponent horizontally then cut down vertically, shake the blood off and put it away. Add appropriate fillips and foofaws for each school or teacher and there you have the movements.

The riai? Usually I'm told it's "there's a guy sitting in front of you and he starts to draw and you beat him to it". Those guys tend to draw and swing really fast. On the other hand I also hear "you sense the opponent's ill will and you forestall his attack with one of your own". Those guys tend to draw more slowly since the other guy hasn't even started moving yet.

Is that the riai? I don't think so, I think that's still part of the technique, the situation of the kata, it's just the story we're telling at the moment. The riai has to be the meaning of the story, the principles of the school you're studying. What's the principle of "senseing the bad intent of the person in front of you, you draw your sword and cut him down"? I think that principle is "preventative self defence" or whatever excuse the superpowers of the world are using these days to go into an area and bomb it back to stones... if it isn't already just stones. On a personal level I'd call that murder and I'm convinced that those who developed iai as a method of self improvement (as opposed to a really really poor way to deal with combat in a modern world of easily obtainable firearms) did not intend that their first instruction to us was "go kill someone who hasn't done anything yet".

I know we have folks who claim to be able to read minds using FMRI but really, those machines are huge and folks sitting in front of you with a sword in their belt aren't going to be thinking about killing you, they're going to be thinking about the pain in their hip as the sword mashes them into the wall of the chamber. Or so I believe after seeing guns go whipping out of hands when the fancy lab machine is turned on in the movies.

We don't "sense the start of an attack" we see it. A good swordsman won't telegraph an attack and a poor swordsman probably doesn't need to be killed, you ought to be able to prevent him from drawing.

How to do that? Well you might listen to your sensei when he says things like "saya no uchi no kachi" and rather than ignoring it (because it won't help you pass your next grade) you might think about it. Just how do you win in the scabbard? I can think of about a dozen ways you could apply the saying in various ways such as driving forward and knocking the poor fellow backward over his insteps while you drive your knee into his hands, or not being there in the first place. You come up with some other stuff in between where you don't draw your sword and kill him and you will be approaching the principle of not drawing your sword and killing him. Saya no uchi.

Does this apply to Mae? Sure it does, next time you are drawing the sword in kata think very hard in your head "Don't Draw! Don't Draw that Sword!" Right up to the point where you reach saya banari and you absolutely have to cut him. Does this change your draw? Do you look a bit more like sensei?

This is not murder, this is not preemptive self defence, or even self defence. It's giving the fellow a chance to change his mind while you demonstrate the superiority of your position.

Whip it out fast? Counter-intuitive to giving him time to back down. Sloppy movements, leaving big gaps in your defence so that your opponent thinks he can get in and cut you? "But Marshall, he drew first!"

The riai of teaching Mae is to instill the basic movement patterns, then the basic philosophical viewpoint, and finally to provide a method of continuing challenge to the student. Basic patterns? Horizontal draw and cut, vertical finishing cut (the rest is getting ready for the next kata). Basic philosophy? Be a good person not a murderer, your role as the man with the sword, (or the police badge, military grade rifle and armour), is that of the armed agent of the government toward the citizens. A duty of protection rather than conflict. You don't use iaido on the battlefield unless you're a poor soldier. You are a peacekeeper, not a "peacemaker" as the euphamism puts it. When the policeman becomes a soldier the country is already deep into civil war.

To learn this responsibility to protect we teach the beginners that their imaginary opponent is just a bit less skillful. He may also be all the bad things the student knows about himself, those bad things that have to be defeated every day just as the imaginary opponent is defeated every kata.

That is well and good while the student is learning. He can see that his opponent is a poor swordsman indeed, but with practice the imaginary fellow eventually becomes as skilled as most of the senior students around. Now what? Why would anyone continue to practice when the result is so predictable, victory after victory.

Now is the time for the teacher to reveal the secret, the opponent has been holding back, he is actually a bit better than the student and now the student must do several things. He must work harder, sweat more to keep surviving. The opponent must still be beaten so the student must watch his own movements closely. No longer can he rely on his superior ability and just watch the opponent, he must stay ahead, close the gaps, increase the pressure, struggle. He must do all this without becoming a brute, he must not forget his responsibility to forgive, to refrain from killing no matter the provocation short of being killed himself. It is this training for control that becomes the path to wisdom, this willingness to sacrifice, to take the hard way rather than the easy, to refrain from using the nuclear option when challenged by a child. Yet having that option, training to have that option, killing only on the point of being killed, this teaches an iron will and a gentle manner which seeks to avoid the conflict altogether.

This is the riai of the first kata. There are others, some not so full of sweetness and light but this is the first, the basic.

Beginners figure the kata is the art and the riai is the story. A kata is a story, there are many. Riai is the moral of the story, and all stories have a moral.

Oct 20, 2014

41st AJKF Jodo Tournament

Hey all you SDK folk and friends out there, here's a story on kendo-world about our very own Jeff Broderick competing in the all Japan jodo championships!


Now I'm going back to read it.

Incidentally, I also just got the latest volume of Kendo-World the magazine and I'd suggest all you folks subscribe and get it too.

Oct 18, 2014

The things you find online

This is an ad in Black Belt magazine from June 1991 that popped up while I was googling my name. I do that once in a while because I find little delights like this one. So the seminar has been presented what, 24 times? Next year should be the 25th anniversary, provided it happens which is not at all certain at just this moment. Well I shouldn't say that, we'll do something to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Haruna sensei's first visit to Canada.


Oct 16, 2014

Arts and Crafts

Jutsu and Do, what do they mean? The argument has been bouncing around for decades, if you go back into the iaido-l archives you'll find the discussion there in the early 1990s but it predates the web. Now, any Japanese I've ever talked to has no worries interchanging iaido and iaijutsu or even kendo and kenjutsu. I have a video of a speach by Nobuharu Yagyu in NYC where he refers to Yagyu shinkage ryu as "kendo" or at least it was translated as that.

On the other hand, many folks have used the two terms in more specialized definitions, jujutsu and judo, kenjutsu and kendo, one being the koryu and one being the "modern sportified" form or similar. You need to know who is using the term and how they are using it, you need to know the context.

There isn't a single definition so looking for one is frustrating to say the least. Each group will use the term they figure has the correct meaning for themselves, or has the connotation they want to assume. In at least one case I was told of, when asked why he chose "iaijutsu" a lineage head said "because the other guys use iaido". It can be that simple.

So what do we mean when we make a distinction? Often "jutsu" is called the craft, the technique, the practical stuff and "do" is called the art of the thing.

Years ago I had a reprint of an article by Arthur Danto entitled "After the End of Art" and in his intro he mentions another author who proposed that western art began around 1400 when the idea of "art for art's sake" arose. (Prior to this time art was iconography, symbolic or representational but not primarily aesthetic).

Now, assuming that we can take the "jutsu vs do" thing as meaning a purely practical martial art and a martial art performed for the art of the thing, (without getting hung up on all the other stuff jutsu and do brings up) and further assuming that world culture isn't too disjointed, so that the rise of "art" in one place should be within a couple hundred years of the rise of "art" in another, can we peg the rise of martial art as art to the same period and the same developments as art as art?

3000 words before next Monday please.

Oct 16, 2014

If You Can't Do Seiza You Can't Do Iai

A fairly common assumption from those who are deeply into the grading thing is that if you can't do seiza you can't do the seiza kata and therefore you can't pass a grading and so you can't do iaido. An easy confusion of the meaning of grading. Your skill does not come from your rank, your rank (ideally) reflects your skill.

One can always modify the kata according to physical limitations, it's up to the sensei and the grading committees to deal with the changes, and to decide if they are "iai" or not. It's up to the students to do their iai as faithfully as they can. Between the two a balance is usually found.

Even worse than seiza tends to be tate hiza, sitting with the weight all on the left leg rather than both. If your knee is a bit wonky there's no reason not to use a position where the back foot is toes down on the ground rather than further down on the instep. Better than not doing it at all, but with any modification of the kata, keep working toward the ideal form as much as possible.

Take a closer look at the tate hiza position, the major problem is twisting the knee by cranking the left heel into the centre of your butt. This puts tremendous pressure diagonally through the knee as you rise. Couple this with a right foot that's out ahead of the left knee where it pushes you back into a seated position while you're trying to rise and you've got even more pressure on that knee.

Try swinging the left foot more into a seiza position and bringing the right foot as deeply back into your centre as you can. I used to be able to rise straight up from tate hiza while keeping the left foot tucked up against my butt. (A bit old and fat for that now). That takes the pressure off the left knee.

As for siting comfortably in seiza if you have no knee damage, that is usually a matter of practice and stretching. To stabilize the knees and also help stretch, try the following:

Sit in seiza, drop the arms directly down at the sides and relax the shoulders, keeping the back vertical, slowly rise up and flip the toes under. Now flip them back down and slowly sit back into seiza, concentrating on relaxing the quads as you hit the seated position, then tighten the quads once more and start rising for the second rep. It's those tight quads that tend to make the knees scream, but if you've got big hamstrings your knees may be pulled in strange ways by the leverage... again if you can relax the muscles and let them squish out to the sides you'll have less pressure through the knees.

As for tate hiza... I adjusted to that by using that position every time I was in a bookstore looking at books on the bottom shelf. Too bad nobody goes to bookstores any more.

Iaido is concerned with the approach to an ideal form, with that form buried deeply in effective transfer of power from the ground to the tip of the sword.

Now how you read that statement is usually related to where you are in your iai career. It's fairly common to hear "hey he passed but he can't even do seiza" from students who are only a few years in. They see the approach to an ideal form in terms of what it looks like.

Several years later and usually they understand that the approach to an ideal form has to be made in a real world, and that the art itself changes when done by different people. We don't make changes to iai, but iai becomes different when practiced by some people.

I'm not talking about muscles that need to be stretched of course, in that case you need to work on it and get there. I had a student years ago whose hand was mangled in an accident. He told me he'd never be able to hold the sword properly and I simply told him to get as close as he could. Several years later he held the sword so well you'd never suspect any problems at all.

But for those who cannot work further toward the ideal, it is incorrect for them to attempt to do iai in the "correct" way since it would put them at a disadvantage in the real world. For instance, another student had a degenerative neuromuscular condition that made him lose balance, and made it hard for him to find the hilt with his left hand. On a test he did his standing turns with a pause while he caught his balance, and he did everything one handed. He passed and the question was, of course, asked.

The answer is that for him to try and turn, find the hilt and cut in a continuous movement would put him off balance and moving into an opponent's range without control of his cut. This would be wrong, incorrect, and I'd fail him for it. He didn't change the art, the art changed around his condition and circumstances and it was up to the grading committee and his sensei to understand that.

In Japan and some other countries those who can't do seiza or tate hiza are accomodated by giving them a different set of all standing kata for their test. In Canada we don't do that, we simply have a set way to do the seated kata while standing. The thinking is that some of the folks who can't sit seiza are still going to be instructors one day and we need to see how they do their seated kata so that we know they understand the dynamics and can teach those who are still sitting.

In the last few years I have sensed a move toward a more small-minded iai, one that is looking to fail rather than looking for reasons to pass. In this climate it's easy to fail someone for a uniform fault or for not being able to get into seiza. For those caught in that system I would like to remind you that iaido is not grading.

A sword teacher in 1580 would perhaps teach kata from tate hiza or seiza because it was practical ("it's the way we sit"). Given a set of students who might have been injured in the wars, would that teacher tell an old vet that he can't learn anything because he can't sit in seiza? No of course not, the teacher would adapt his art to the soldier and the ideal of having to do seiza would not even arise. It would be stupid to teach techniques from seiza to someone who would never be in seiza.

What is different now? Is your iai a fossil to be preserved in stone forever or is it a living art? Do we sit in seiza as a matter of course these days? Is passing a grade the goal of your art?

If you are told you can't pass because you can't sit in seiza or tate hiza, the solution would seem instantly apparent. Don't bother grading. It won't affect your practice of the art. If your sensei is teaching you, you've already passed the only important test in the arts.

Oct 14, 2014

The real cost of things

As I write these thoughts and put them on faceplant so that they can get more advertising revenue off of my efforts (and yours) it occurs to me that these come out at about $10 apiece since I write them while I'm having my morning coffee at my morning coffee shop.

They don't get done at home so no telling me to have coffee at home.

So if I put this blog (from web-log which really isn't what it is, it's a series of columns which are not in the columns of a newspaper or magazine... essays?) into a series of books as some folks have suggested I could sell them as ebooks at $10 apiece. That means I'd have to sell 100 of them with 100 columns each in order to break even.

100 books of my columns aren't going to sell in a year, so this is yet another money losing project. Of course I write these in order to sit still long enough to have a coffee... which come to think of it doesn't do my atrial fibrillation any good... and not feel guilty about taking that much time away from grinding wood in the shop.

And then there's my illusion that these are ads for the business, that they are driving eyeballs and the search algorithms to my sales website. I wonder if the search engines pay any attention to the social media sites at all? If there's a place for link spammers it's got to be here.

Nah, everyone go to sdksupplies.com and read this blog there, that way the hits go up and the search engines are happy.

What, you figure I do this to see myself think? Well yes, OK I do.

Did you ever think about what your budo training costs you? You just flashed on the cost of your last grading didn't you? But that's chump change, even in the CKF where we have the highest grading fees in the entire kendo federation (but low, low membership fees). No your dojo fees, your lost income from the hours you could have been working on your own businesses, the gas you put into the car to drive to your dojo... all this stuff is pretty expensive. Make sure it's worth it, practice hard.

Is your sensei self employed? If so he's losing income every class he attends, and he spends money for gas and on his own equipment and... do you at least slip him mileage?

By now you're all saying to yourselves "you can't put a monetary value on everything", but you can. Economists do it all the time and so should you if you're a rational unit of consumption.

But you're not, are you? You're a story-telling unit. You practice budo for the stories, you do it for the contact with other units, for the communication of it. You can call that a currency of exchange if you like, but it isn't monetary. You can't buy a muffin with a roundhouse to the head.

You can buy an extra set of hands to work on the deck next spring with a good half hour of pounding with a shinai. Money is only useful to the point where you have enough, beyond that it's just a way of keeping score, and we all know there's better ways of keeping score.

Oct 9, 2014

Herding Cats

Heard a story years ago, not sure from whom, about getting a 9dan in Kendo.

So how do you get a 9dan in Kendo if there's nobody to promote you?

You get all the 8dans to agree that you're a 9dan

Who could ever get all the 8dans to agree on anything!!


Martial artists are like any other creative types, they tend to have "opinions" and getting them to work together is the proverbial herding of cats, yet they do work together. Sometimes they remind themselves of the greater good (do it for the kids) and sometimes they do it because there's someone with a highest rank around to dictate when necessary.

As long as the fellow up top is someone who isn't too bad, the system works. It helps if those who are bad at the bossing job can be ignored for most of the time, and it usually works out that bad bosses either take on all the work or ignore it completely. This lets everyone else get on with it while nodding once in a while. But the guys who insist on making you do the work, then micromanaging you... those are toxic to a workplace.

So who's the best guy for the job? I can't imagine how often I've heard someone say that the head of some koryu isn't the most talented guy, that their particular sensei should have been named the head because he was so much more of a bad ass. While it's nice when the top guy is also skilled, it's obviously not necessary as the decision of the previous head would indicate. You want the guy at the top to be able to keep things together and not to run the school into the ground.

If you've got a system that installs a dictator (as a heirarchial organization like budo tends to do... soke's word is the word-o-god) you really want that fellow to dictate by consensus. Budo organizations aren't closed states, they may have their share of snitches but they don't have a secret police. They may have an enforcer or two but they don't have an army or a militia to force compliance. A budo dictator who ticks off the membership simply finds that membership fading away and soon they may be a big frog in a small pond, not making much of a splash at all. Basho wouldn't be impressed.

Make it a small organization to begin with and the new head may simply be the last man standing. Let's hope he's up to the job but there's no real point of complaining one way or the other since there's nobody else. A large organization can choose from several people, especially those which are nominally democratic and the membership actually has a say about who is in charge. In that case how do you know if the last guy did a good job and what do we ask of the new guy?

Membership numbers jump to mind. The large organizations like Kendo, Aikido, Judo and Karate usually have a pretty simple mandate. To increase their numbers and teach the art. In the case of Kendo, Judo and often Karate, you also train the competitors. So the easiest way to measure success in any leader is to look at numbers and wins. If your organization is bleeding numbers, increasing dues and dropping in the tournament rankings you might want to blame video games and helicopter parents, but you might also want to check out the guy at the top. Maybe it's time to replace Mr. Bad Ass with someone who can organize a trip to the corner store. Maybe it's time to replace Mr. Nice Guy - Agrees With Everyone - with someone who can remember what everyone else agreed to last week.

The nine dan is the guy who can convince all the 8dans that he's a 9dan. But sometimes the guy at the top is just the guy who will do the least harm. We can afford not to have a 9dan around, but there's always got to be a guy in charge.

It helps if he can herd cats.

Oct 8, 2014

Up the Ladder

Everyone wants to improve, it's a natural human inclination to want to rise lot in the world. I think that's why kids like grading in the martial arts, they like to get that next level because it means they're learning stuff. (Funny they don't usually get that same enthusiasm for tests in school... )

Improvement is good, mileposts are nice reminders of that improvement and maybe even incentive to work a bit harder but we should always remind ourselves that counting mileposts as they pass is not usually the reason for a trip. Whether out on a Sunday drive to enjoy the ride or trying to get to a destination, getting your attention caught by the roadsigns is counterproductive.

Think of ranks as rungs on a ladder. You go up a ladder for a reason, to fix a roof maybe or to get to a better view. In gyms full of silly exercise equipment I have in fact, seen endless ladders that are there "just for the journey" but ignore those for the moment, I want to talk about old wooden ladders with round rungs, the kind you never see any more.

Got one in mind? Now think about taking a hammer and knocking out all the rungs above the one you're standing on. Are you now on the top rung? Sure you are. Badmouth and tear down in your mind all the folks who rank above you in your martial art. Good, they are all worthless now. Does that mean you're top dog? Sure you are, there's nobody above you and if you figure that being the top rank is a good thing, you've accomplished a worthy goal.

Is the point of rank to be on top? Maybe. Is a ladder with three rungs a useful ladder? Perhaps if all we want to do is paint the kitchen ceiling it is. Lord help us if the roof starts leaking, we can patch the ceiling all we want, it won't stop the leak. Some things just have to be done from the top down and for that we need ten or fifteen rungs and a lot of work to climb them. Once we get up there we aren't done yet, we have to hump all the shingles up there too, then place them correctly so that everyone below is nice and dry. Being on the top rung of the ladder just means you're working out in the weather trying to keep it all from falling down due to the leaks.

You know, Musashi said a ryu was a house, as in being the same structure as a clan, and then he compared a ryu to the physical house, with the members of the ryu being carpenters working on the house. A ladder to the roof is not the house, just a way to build the house, and rank is not the ryu, just the way to keep track of who's working on what job. You up a few rungs working on the drywall? That's good, and it's a comfortable job because someone went all the way up to build and shingle the roof. Your job is important but you couldn't do it unless someone had gone before and got onto that top rung. Maybe you figure it's a crappy job, maybe the walls are out of square, maybe the roof is ugly. Is that any reason to rip holes in it and chop the walls down to half height? Leave them alone and do a good job on your own. If the walls will support the roof shim them out and make them square with your drywall. If the roof shingles are a bit crooked but keep the rain out don't worry about it. Very few people get all the way up that ladder to see it anyway.

Still think the roof is crappy? Don't knock out all those upper rungs (so you can't see the crooked lines of shingles), instead be content in the knowledge that all roofs need to be reshingled eventually and when you finally get up to the top of those rungs you can do a much better job than was done before.

Unless of course you figure being on the top rung is the point, and you have a hammer in your hand.

Oct 7, 2014

Assumptions, convictions and clairvoyance.

It occurred to me last night that one of the things that drive me crazy is someone with the conviction that they're clairvoyant. I mean the folks who won't do something because they know it won't work. Most of the time I put this down to laziness or not wanting to do it anyway but not having the ability to say no outright (a more common affliction than you might think), and I just do it myself. But occasionally it's from someone who absolutely must do whatever it is we're talking about.

And then it drives me crazy. I can't just do it myself, but the other person's conviction that it won't work, on no evidence, is standing right in the way of my work.

"Honey can you call the computer guys and ask whether a scsi driver will fit in an ati nut? I'm up to my elbows in grease".

"Oh they won't know".


What makes us humans is the ability to predict, to imagine what will happen next, given the current set of circumstances. This lets us plan for future events and allows us a longer lifespan. It prompts us to put up the wooden walls to keep the tigers out. But carry it too far and you slip into some sort of god-like ability to know and even control the future. Or at least think you do. That way lies magic and religion. Cross your eyes and spit when a black cat crosses your path or something bad will happen to you. Sacrifice a goat or your crops will fail and get a soothsayer to read the entrails of this chicken so I know what dress will be in style next Thursday.

What, if it works to predict a battle why won't it work to find out what's going to be in fashion?

By all means, extrapolate trends but don't assume you can predict the future. Make sure your trends apply to the prediction. If you call Home Depot and they say they don't have green plexiglass panels, don't assume it's a waste of time to phone Home Hardware.

I told my kids a dozen years ago that they should ask for what they want. Write that letter of application, make that phone call. Your assumption that the answer will be no may well be true, but the worst that will happen is you'll get "no". You may get "yes". If you don't ask you'll surely get "no" but you'll have no chance at all for "yes".

In other words, there's no harm in asking and hey, if all the other boys think they have no chance that Lucy will go out with them, maybe she's lonely enough to go out with you!

Every year at a lot of Universities and Colleges there are scholarships that go unawarded because nobody applied. It's too much trouble to go ask for a list of awards? It's too much trouble to fill out a form that might lead to a thousand dollars worth of beer money for the semester? It was for me, don't be an Amy Assumer, you won't find fashion trends in chicken entrails, but you may find a "yes" on the end of that application letter.

And if I ask you to phone an expert say yes or no, but don't say "oh they won't know".

You don't know that.

Oct 6, 2014

What do you need?

The third of the Hinterland series of thoughts I suppose this is. Ah the first taste of Grainer's Gold, my dark roast of choice. What more do I need on a Saturday morning.

What indeed do you need? In the CKF we have had a Development Fund for many years and it's own development is an interesting story. Originally budgeted at ten thousand dollars for the year for the entire federation, it had very few takers. The low response was thought originally to be the paperwork required, with a request, the grant and then a report on how the money was spent. Next came an attempt to lower the paperwork which resulted for a while in even more paperwork. I have no idea what it involves currently.

While I was involved on the board the directors decided to split the fund "so that iaido and jodo could get more money". I explained at the time that iai and jo could apply for $10,000 under the original rules, and now could only apply for less than half of that, but the perception was that we would be more likely to get more money if it was designated to "us". I put us in quotes because I always considered myself a director for the CKF not the "iaido and jodo guy". If I was for everyone the rest of the directors would be for everyone too yes? Hey, it was a thought. At any rate, the applications for the original $10,000 and for the new designated amount were about the same as ever. Almost none.

While we were discussing the reduced amounts of grant available it was decided that the funds would roll over year to year. Again I had terrible visions of the future (I'm cursed with imagination) where a surplus would build up to massive amounts and then all be asked for in one go. With no actual cash being put away in a bank account that sort of thing could destroy a budget. Of course if nobody uses the funds it won't ever be a problem and I think (I'm not involved any more so I don't know) it has an extinguishing feature now. Don't ask for it for a few years and it disappears.

Many committees have come and gone, grants were granted and adjusted and today there is still a low uptake of the fund, although it is better than it used to be.

Somewhere along the way a few folks were denied some funding that was promised and some harsh words were spoken, accusations made and apologies never given. Shocking yes? Tell me it doesn't happen in your organization and I'll call you a fibber. Regardless, a new fund, independent of the CKF was created by the senior ranks in iaido and jodo and it was called, imaginatively, the Canadian Iaido and Jodo Fund. It is run by those same senior students and is intended to cover unexpected expenses for folks who can't afford to pay them. Or anything else anyone wants to apply for. The fund has no budget or income, if it gets low a request for funds goes out and folks kick in some money.

Doesn't happen. Like the development fund, the CIJF doesn't pay out much.

So to my point. What is it that the dojo in the hinterlands need? It isn't really money or those funds would be dry every year. Let's think then about what the funds have funded. A couple of tournaments that couldn't self-fund, not unexpected given the low numbers of folks who want to compete in iai tournaments and the high rents in the big city. The rest of it would seem to be flying sensei to the hinterlands. Now there's a shock, the folks away from the centers of population and instruction are asking for help to get some of that instruction.

So the hinterland needs instructional support and some areas are getting it. I am one of those support folks and make the occasional trip out to the west coast swinging through Alberta on the way. The loop is partially paid for by the development fund and it's appreciated in a big way. A lot of good will toward the federation is generated along with the instruction.

So some money to provide instructional support is wanted, is it needed? It's appreciated but if it didn't exist the money would be found anyway so not needed, wanted.

Communication is often mentioned as a need as in "we need more communication". I've always laughed at that, having been in charge of communication in maybe a dozen organizations since my High School days as Publicity Director. I knew a fellow once who complained to me about poor communications every time he saw me. Used to call quite a lot. In fact he used to call the president of that organization about once a week and have long talks about what was going on. Yet he figured there was poor communication.

Each organization has its own communication style, and it tends to go throughout the levels. If you, in the hinterland, are in a haze about what is going on it's a very good bet that the same hazy communications are happening at the center of the federation. Groups that communicate well at the top, good meetings, good minutes, good discussions and votes amongst the committees with proper reports will find it rediculously easy to share that information with all of the membership. On the other hand groups that tend to fumble along with no structure at the top, maybe one or two folks making decisions for everyone, swaying with the influence of whoever they talked to last, will be as confusing to the guys in the home dojo as those in the furthest outpost.

In other words, if the hinterland wants better communication, so, in all likelihood, does the heartland. All is equal and fair.

Do you need to be told what's going on? What effects you might be a surprise if you aren't, so perhaps. What affects you?

Coming to the end of my second cup I'm drawn to thinking about the support I get from the caffine. Support! That's what any teacher in any organization needs, wants and appreciates. Just an occasional pat on the head and the feeling that somebody has their back.

Support isn't money, it isn't timely communication of the annual financial report. Both of those are useful, but not necessary to a dojo out on the edges of the empire. No, what is really needed at Hadrian's Wall is the feeling that someone back in Rome has your back, that you have someone who remembers you're out there facing the blue men. Someone who will try and get some reinforcements to you when you need them.

Too often this support for the remote dojo comes only from a sensei's sensei and not from the organization itself. This causes feelings of "what's the federation doing for me?" Well a federation isn't a person and it's people who have your back. Unless that federation has specific policies in place to provide that support, and those are neither hard nor expensive. Official instructional tours will show the flag around the empire. Regular reports (newsletters) that are sent to all members once every couple of months will give the feeling of being involved. Even something as simple as a chinwag with dojo leaders at seminars or tournaments will give the impression that "somone is listening".

But often the best support an organization can give to a regional dojo is what I've always called "benign neglect". The closest I've ever felt to any organization was when the guy at the top just let me get on with it, kept the meddlers at bay and "had my back".

That's what I want, out here on Hadrian's Wall, an emperor who gives me the wall, keeps the other generals from stealing my men and materials and sends reinforcements on those very rare cases when I need them. I'll work hard for that guy.

What do I need? Well, when I think about it hard, I don't need anything at all from a federation. I have my sensei, I don't need rank. I have my students who may want rank but who don't need it. I have a place to practice, I don't need money and I don't need to know anything more than to know what I don't need. Suddenly I realize I need to follow my sensei, to visit him occasionally to keep my own energy up, and for the rest of it, to do it myself. Being in the hinterland means that I automatically have the benign neglect that distance grants me.

You don't need your organization, it's the other way around, the organization needs you. Once you're at that realization the irritation falls away and you can feel better about helping that thing that needs your help. What is the organization? What does it provide to you?

The CKF provides my students with ranks for which it charges a hefty fee. We're even. Since my sensei is a member, it provides me with access to my sensei. Ah, there's the key, as long as my sensei is a member I'll support the organization. Beyond that, there's nothing I need and to tell the truth, nothing I want so I'm content.

Now, what do you need out there in your hinterland?

Oct 4, 2014


Further to the idea of the spread of a budo being like sparks scattered out from a fire, I'd like to think about viewpoints. Yes, I use these writings to do my thinking while I'm writing them, hence the messiness at times. From what I've seen there are at least three viewpoints on any of the arts, from the source, from a local organization, and from the individual dojo.

First the source, this is Japan in my case, and I'm usually talking about the Kendo Federation but I could easily be talking about Aikido or Judo. Large coherant groups with country and regional organizations. The viewpoint in Japan comes from one of being at the very top of the heap, which is obvious, and implies all the associated attitudes, the assumption of correctness, entitlement, arrogance and the other things that being on top can bring with it. These traits will be shown to various degree depending on how thoughtful the persons are at the top, but the tendencies come with the position. This goes with the territory in the lower (national and regional) levels too, with the upper level folk being prone to thoughtless assumptions of correctness, but this is counterbalanced with traits of subservience directed up the ladder. After all, the head guys might not get to stay in their head positions without the guys up the chain letting them stay. Except that's not usually the way it works.

There is a saying "Peking is far away" which applies directly to this situation, even in those organizations that have a pyramidal structure, with the folks in Japan appointing those in the rest of the world to power. The saying refers to distance, "we do things here in the provinces the way we do it here, Peking is far away". Even if the hiring and firing comes from Japan, it's likely that the local groups will be doing things their own way.

But most organizations of any size have an independent rule in the countries, where they choose their own political leaders. This is tied up with the administrative vs instructional split in any physically centered activity. We elect or anoint our own administrators and they are expected to do their best for their group. We earn or are given from above our teaching ranks and so we are responsible to those up the chain in a very direct way. This is true in the sports as in budo, baseball coaches aren't usually expected to deal with the IOC and the administrators are expected to administer, not give advice on how to win ball games. In the budo the heirarchical nature of the rank structure gets mixed up with the administrative arm of things and sometimes you'll get fearful administrators who are more concerned with their next rank than their duties as local leaders. It should always be remembered that one does the job the hat requires. If you're wearing the hat of the regional president you ought to be fighting the national organization for more resources for your area. If you've got a 5dan hat and want a 6dan hat next grading you ought not be in the faces of those above, but rather at the other end. If the grading authority is separate from the administrative authority that's usually not a problem, but in the budo the two usually get mixed. Remember which hat you're wearing at any given time.

Similar things apply to dojo who are "out of the loop", who are not in the regions of power in their country. If you're out of the loop it means that the loop is out of your hair. In our Canadian case "Toronto/Vancouver/Montreal is far away". We dojo out on the marches have as much control from those in the loop as we allow that power base to have over us. How fearful are you that you won't pass your next grade? A lot? Perhaps then, you should not be arguing for funding for your next event. Give the job to some student who has a chance of being forgotten before his next grading.

Of course none of this is relevant if everyone from the hinterlands through to Japan has the same viewpoint on how to do things. "As above, so below". But there are certain realities that slant the viewpoints in different ways and these often hinge on numbers and rank.

Japan has lots of rank and lots of students. OK I know there are hinterlands in Japan but I'm talking the administrative base, those who make the rules. In the big centers, there is no problem with getting enough students to run a dojo, the problem is crowding, not enough spaces to accomodate the numbers. The same with rank, you'll get dojo with dozens of high ranked students, rank enough to be running dojo anywhere else, but here they are just the guys who organize the new year's party. So lots of students, in fact they may need to be turned away, and lots of rank so no worries about instruction amongst the students, but perhaps a feeling of the glass ceiling for the upper ranks.

In this case the view of training can easily be one of no accomodation. With lots of students there's no real need to... well accomodate is the best word, to do anything special for any of them. They fall into the norm or someone else steps into their place as they fall by the side of the road. I don't say this happens, but the conditions are there, the nails that stick up can be hammered down or pulled out to be replaced by ones that are shiny, straight and new. This can be the view of the juniors.

What about the seniors and their glass ceiling? With no advancement available (into the highest ranks or into their own dojo to teach due to the crowding already existing) the seniors need some other way to feel they are advancing. One challenge needs to be replaced by another and this other can be healthy or not. Competition for status can mean gossip and cruelty while trying to gain the top sensei's favour or it could mean sports competition through tournaments or even competition to see who can do the most to build the dojo through helping with funding, teaching, cleaning or organizing the parties. A glass ceiling can skew the expected viewpoint (the next grade) into unexpected areas. The very top levels will of course be guarded carefully by those at the top, so admission will be very tricky. Those seeking to get in will need to make sure they don't do anything wrong. The viewpoint will be very rigid, no sticking up.

Any viewpoint tends to be personal, it's only natural that people see things through their own experience and concerns. The view of other countries from Japan, when it exists, will usually be through the lens of personal concerns such as advancement at home. There are very few individuals anywhere in any organization who will stick their necks out for the folks elsewhere. While we may think this is not the way of budo, it is the way of humans. Those with a small investment will have a small desire for risk. Only those who see beyond their own concerns will risk for strangers. If a country can find a teacher who is dedicated to the international growth of an art, they are lucky indeed, and these teachers do exist, but they need a dedication to an ideal rather than to their own status. Why you say? Simply because of some of the gossip, the backbiting for status we mentioned before. This is what we usually call "office politics" and it exists everywhere, and one of the biggest causes is jealousy. Sensei who get to travel to other countries are resented back home so they have to have thick skins or high enough status to ignore the politics if they want to advocate for their overseas students.

Is this thinking unfair of me? Perhaps but if we understand how people see what they see, we can understand and forgive what they do.

Let's leave the home ranges and move to the country levels. How do the budo get established in other places? Emigrants and foreign students mostly. Japanese who left Japan often took their budo with them, and students who went to Japan often learned the budo and brought it back with them. Curiously, these two groups can have radically different viewpoints, one being that of someone born into something and the other that of the convert. Then there's the "none so Scots as the Scots abroad" group. The attitudes of the founders will persist in national organizations for decades and sometimes generations. The Japanese who leave the home country to find jobs or a new life will usually not have a very romantic view of Japan. They will start organizations, working hard to do so, building things up slowly and will have an attitude of ownership toward their work. These organizations will tend to be rather independent-minded and slow to accept control from Japan, especially if the political structures are horizontal (independent national units under an overall international structure) rather than vertical (national organizations are directly controlled by the Japanese organization). The sports oriented budo tend to be horizontal due to international competition while the non-competitive arts can be either.

Organizations created by students tend to have a different outlook, the founders being much more tied to their instructors back in Japan, much more reliant on them to explain what is important and what is simply a cultural artifact. Japanese ex-pats will know what is simply the way things are done because they were learned in public school, but adult students won't have that background with which to separate what's important to the art and needs to be carried to the new country and what's just cultural baggage. Those organizations will be much more deferential to the originating country. A certain amount of romance will also be involved here, as students of the Japanese arts tend to be Japanophiles, at least when they go to Japan, and perhaps even when they return. These are the converts. Japanese emigrants tend not to romanticize their place of birth.

On the other hand, the "none so Scots" attitude does exist in some ex-pats that found a budo in another country, and they may genuinely miss the old country with a bit of resentment that they were forced to move to a new place for work and now feel trapped there. These folks will run a very Japanese organization indeed, often along lines that will become antique compared to those back home who have moved on. Thus the "none so Scots" reference, they are living in the country of their birth which, after 40 years is likely not the country that exists now.

Bottom line, national organizations will be more, or less, likely to defer to Japan. Those in the organizations may be more, or less, concerned with pleasing the international organization (one hopes so), the Japanese organization (good or bad depending on the political structure of the organization) or any Japanese high rank who comes along (one always hopes respect is given where it is deserved, rather than on the basis of birthplace).

The viewpoint of the national organization toward its own regional and dojo members will depend, as it does in Japan, on numbers of students in the dojo of those in charge and rank in those dojo. Lots of students and lots of rank in the dojo of the administrators will tend to give viewpoints similar to those mentioned for Japan above.

The hinterland dojo will almost always have a viewpoint coloured by their struggles on the marches. Being the front line in a new area will feel lonely indeed, and resentment can build up as the years of neglect from the organization (which may not even remember they have an outpost) pile up. The lone teacher has to build his own connections to those above, finding people who are in a position to help and appealing directly to them rather than to the organization as a whole.

Curiously, the folk on the edges may have more in common with the founders of the organization than with the folks running it who have come up with an entirely different viewpoint. The organization may say "you have to build things up and fund your own events" while the founders may say "when do you need us".

Oct 3, 2014


I sometimes think of the map of Canada and put little embers on the places where there are people practising the martial arts that I practice. They are embers rather than fires because this stuff is not popular at all, even the kendo clubs are small unless you look in Vancouver and Toronto.

Small sparks in most places which, inevitably, are individuals who have a love of the art. They learn in University at one of the larger places (or even Guelph, dojo population of maybe 14 at the best of times) and then move back home, or go to work elsewhere and they take their love of the arts with them. They start teaching just so they can get a space in their local squash club, or maybe a local University, a church hall, wherever they can find someone willing to take a chance on a bunch of people swinging swords. They demonstrate, they advertise, they do whatever they can to get a few folks in and pay the rent, and they teach.

They teach not because they figure it's cool, not for ego, certainly not for money. They teach because there is nobody else. They put up with comments on their qualifications, they agonize about it themselves, but they teach because the alternative is giving up their training. They keep their small ember of practice alive by constantly blowing on it, putting in much more energy than they get out. It's not fair, they should be in a big club with a high ranked sensei but they're on their own except for those few times a year that they can visit with their sensei or someone, anyone else who can give them a few pointers to work on until the next seminar. And then they get challenged about how much they can learn with lessons three months apart.

In the meantime, back in the big city where the organization inevitably gets run, the folks in the big dojo lose sight of these sparks in the wilderness. They figure it's all chatting with each other over lunch after class and driving across town for an extra practice. If the organization notices one of the sparks it's usually to ask them to do something dull, boring and tedious that nobody else wants to do. Not a problem until they turn around and reject the work they assigned. That's often the tipping point that extinguishes the spark and one more point on the map goes black, one more enthusiastic student burned out.

Another way the spark goes out is with no support. You can keep an ember alive by blowing on it, but sometimes you have to breath in, when you do that the fire dies. One person in the wilderness is at risk, even one other who can blow a little once in a while can make the difference.

Fires go out by smothering them, neglecting them or rearranging them.

Too much criticism of teaching smothers the remote club as the teacher can only resist so much criticism from up above while teaching down at the same time. You need confidence in your ability to teach correctly and that confidence gets eroded pretty fast when you're hundreds of miles from your support team. Getting told you're "doing it wrong" is a lot louder in the middle of the woods than in the city.

No contact at all with that support system can also mean the energy that started the dojo never gets renewed. Nobody can keep blowing out without breathing in. No teacher can expend the energy of keeping a dojo going for years without the occasional jolt to renew the batteries.

Fires need a certain arrangement to keep burning. Scatter the sticks and they all stop burning. Make a teacher on his own jump through too many different hoops and he will get further and further away from what really matters, the practice. Given the amount of paperwork and arguing it takes to keep a club going in the local YMCA, is it really a good idea to keep changing the rules and cranking up the paperwork in the wider budo organization? Sensei in the big clubs can just hand off the work to the juniors, who does the teacher in a club of four beginners hand things to?

Sparks are a good thing when you want a fire, but sparks aren't a fire yet. They need a gentle application of energy added to what they have in order to grow into a self-sustaining fire. But even when the fire can be left alone for a few moments, those moments need to be spent gathering more fuel. The sparks of instruction scattered from the main dojo need to be cared for by proper support from senior sensei, and once the distant dojo are established, the main organization still needs to do what it can to get new fuel to those fires. It's no good applying the recruitment methods of a big city (which often amounts to turning students away from the Japanese Cultural Centers where the big city population will naturally go to find a Japanese martial art) to the small towns. Excuses for seminars with attendant press release to the local paper, even advertising from the main organization to raise the profile of the art as a whole is how you grow those embers into fires.

Oct 2, 2014

Brutally Honest

It doesn't matter what budo you train in, whether it's koryu or gendai, jutsu or do, whatever you want to imagine you're doing, if you practice under false pretenses, if you fool yourself in any way, you're not going to get it.

The whole POINT of training is to open your eyes, take responsibility for your own actions and become a better person.

Illusion is dangerous, self-delusion is dangerous, hypocrisy is dangerous.

Train honestly and train with honest, GOOD instructors. Not just skillful ones.

Let's break that down a little. Let's say you are in a karate class and you practice by punching short of the target. Can we say that you are fooling yourself, that you will punch short in a fight? I suspect that in a fight you will be just fine, all you need to do is intend to hit rather than intend to stop short, if the accuracy is there you ought to be good. But what about if your partner intentionally misses you while you're training to step aside at the last moment and counterpunch? Not so good, without that "help" you might end up getting hit instead of slipping the punch. Or how about if you have never hit a bag or a makiwara? You might get a good punch in during a fight, but you might want to hope the first one is enough after your wrist folds up and your little finger breaks.

So keep it honest in your training, that doesn't mean trying to take your partners head off, but it does mean honest, accurate attacks.

What about the other aspects of your training? How about just getting your butt out to practice? If you find yourself saying "well, too much to do, I'll make the next class" or "I'm really beat, should probably have an early night or I might hurt myself" you might want to take note of your audience. It's one thing to say that to your sensei (who will probably take it at face value) but it's quite another to say it to yourself. You need to be honest with yourself and make sure you aren't really saying "I don't like training and am making an excuse to avoid it".

Make excuses and even lie if you wish, but don't fool yourself in the process. Your motivations are often not entirely clear, even to you. You need to think about every decision you make, to understand why you do what you do if you want to improve as a person. That's the caveat of course, some folks aren't interested in improving and some figure they're already there.

This sort of honesty is good for everyone, not just yourself. If you find that you are "helping the beginners learn" during a class, ask yourself whether sensei needs that help and whether he asked you to help. If he doesn't, and didn't, perhaps you're looking for an ego boost rather than being of assistance. This is good to know because teaching to boost your ego is harmless if you have the material in your bones, but fooling yourself is easy. Fooling yourself into thinking you know your stuff can get you a broken nose.

Volunteer organizations are a great place for self-questioning. Nobody wants to be in charge of the hobby if they're honest with themselves. You probably started doing kendo because you liked to play kendo. Someone has to run the paperwork and deal with the lawyers, so an organization comes along. Who runs it? Usually it's whoever has to, whoever doesn't come up with an excuse fast enough. Sometimes it's someone who is asked because they are good at a needed job. These are fine, noble reasons for being administrators. "Someone has to do it and I have the ability to do a good job so sure, I'll do it." We all want those guys running the place.

But once the heavy lifting is done and any particular organization is up and running (not specifying any particular group here, just every single one in the universe), the complainers, the needy and the "natural leaders" show up. They are the ones who want to be in charge because they have a personal agenda. They want to slide some benefits their own way (to fix the problems), they want to feel powerful and in charge in their hobby (perhaps because they aren't any such thing in their "real life") or they simply figure everyone ought to listen to them because they are obviously the best, most intelligent man around (sort of like me).

Every one of them will claim they are doing this stuff because "someone has to and of course I don't want to be in charge but if I don't do it, it won't get done". It's traditional, but if we're brutally honest we should find out what the real motivation is. Want something on your resume? Why not. Want some extra resources to slide toward your local region? Sure. Want to feel like a bigshot in at least one area of your life? Go for it. Seriously, go for it, there's a good chance you will rise to the top. Like I said, most people don't want to be in charge so those who do often end up in that position.

BUT... be honest about it with yourself. If you get to be the top dog and you simply repeat over and over how much work you're doing and how hard it is and "please praise me", you are probably not doing a good job. Get the job for whatever reason you want, but be self-honest and then do a great job. If you don't know how to delegate, how to find people who will work hard and how to manage them, learn. Pay attention to the folks obviously doing a great job and steal their techniques. Otherwise you just look like you're not suited for the job. Your incompetance may not get you removed by the way, most volunteer organizations don't need much and as long as the paperwork eventually gets done who cares. Be honest also about why you might still be in charge even while the place falls down around you. Most of the folks will not care as long as they can keep going to those semi-contact kickboxing tournaments. But do a good job anyway, otherwise you're just fooling yourself.

Rank is the same, really. If you're obsessed with it, if you figure it's really important to get that next belt, you might want to ask why. Lots of people in low-status positions are in the martial arts. Many of them are in low-status jobs because that let's them have the time to practice. Some, however, put their time into the martial arts rather than into their careers because they find the arts an easier place to gain status. This is misguided, the arts are sufficient in themselves, they are not a substitute, a replacement for your feelings of failure elsewhere. If you are brutally honest you might realize you're spending large amounts of time practicing just to pass the next test. That may be time you ought to be spending on your career. If you find yourself resenting the hours of practice, if you find yourself saying things like "It's just so hard to find the hours I need to get that next belt", you might just be telling yourself you ought to be at work making money instead. Everybody likes status, but be honest with yourself, budo is a small pond, being a big fish here isn't such a big deal so be a big fish, by all means, but be one who is nice.

Sept 26, 2014

Take It Like Sensei II

Finally remembered last night what I meant by this phrase. A couple of students were leading the rest of the class in a long kata when one of them went oof as she got hit in the ribs instead of the solar plexus. Of course this stopped the flow of the kata and disrupted the class and I was going to take it as a teaching moment when I realized that's what I meant by take it like sensei.

When you're teaching you don't stop because you just got smacked, it disrupts your instruction and it makes the students timid.

My iaido sensei also teaches kendo and one day showed up in class with a massive welt on his right wrist. I asked what happened and he said "we have a bunch of big new beginners and I was teaching kote. They hit really hard but I'm sensei so I have to nod and say 'good! try it again' but it HURT"

Students make mistakes all the time, in practice and out. They are eager, full of energy, and keen to do whatever they can. This can be as annoying as a new puppy but as sensei you have to take it. It does no good to react when they crack you across the head with a bokuto after you've got about half a sentence out. They aren't really paying attention to what you're saying, they are jumping to conclusions based on their assumptions and when you say swing that's all they hear. Still, it would be nice if they'd waited to hear "carefully".

They have good hearts, they mean well, and they're a pain in the arse but you have to take it because you can't teach everything all at once and if you yell at them too much they will become timid and afraid. You must teach slowly, at the speed they can take it in and often you end up with a period of taking your lumps. You don't teach control first when you're teaching someone to "get in there fast", you teach "get in there fast" and then later teach control. That's why the shinai and bogu were invented. If you start with too much emphasis on control you might create a timid student, overly concerned with technique and not bold enough to win. So you take some lumps.

Hmm, had some excitement as a woman just had an episode, fainted, eyes open and shaking, a fellow caught her head and she woke up when I got there, she had a good grip on both sides and seemed lucid so I'm back here and now there's fire, ambulance and police in almost the same time as it took to type this. Pretty massive response and damned fast.

Back to the taking it like a sensei. Students are also keen outside of practice, they want to help and they should be allowed. But of course they will take it too far, base things on their inevitably incorrect assumptions and make big mistakes. You'll have to spend as much time fixing their "help" as you would doing it yourself but they have to learn. Get too upset, correct them too much and there won't be anyone there to take over when you're gone.

Of course, your job as sensei is not only to take it, but to correct it. Spare the stick and spoil the student. Yeah I know it's out of fashion but when was budo ever something to move with the times.

Oh, and the woman seems to be fine, she's off in a flurry of oxygen tubes and monitors to the hospital to get checked out. Apparently she's a bit ticked at all the fuss but better safe than sorry. I don't begrudge the taxes that went into that sort of response, I may need it myself one of these days.

Sept 24, 2014

Names Dropped, Names Gifted

I seem to remember talking about name dropping by beginner instructors. The temptation to enhance one's authority by borrowing it from others through naming them, as in "so and so said this".

Then there's the attempt to demonstrate learning by saying things like "so and so said this but so and so said that".

The first is understandable and is usually grown out of with experience, the second, I'm not a fan. If you're up front of a class they already accept that you're smarter than they are, the person you're trying to convince is yourself.

But both statements have their place in a class, or rather, I find myself saying both even now after decades of teaching. The second statement, a comparison of different advice given by different instructors, is pulled out when a class needs to be told that there isn't one, single way to do anything. Of course I never bring that one out when teaching how to pass a grading, in that case there is only one true way and everyone in the world agrees on it. OK sarcasm, sorry.

"This I give to you"

The first instance of name dropping I also use in class, not to borrow authority but to attribute kindness. I will demonstrate something and say "so and so taught me that" and what I'm really saying is "This I give to you". Like everyone else, I have had my epiphanies along the way and I am immensely grateful to my teachers. I remember who gave me the gift of understanding and when I pass that understanding along I feel that it ought to be recognized as the gift that it is.

This was given to me and now this I give to you. Remember who it came from.

Sept 23, 2014

Seminar Topics

We were practicing Keshi Ryu last night. It's a nice school of 5 kata that are well integrated and easy to learn. Best of all they are done standing so I often use them when I'm asked to do an iai seminar for a new group, like a karate class that just wants to do something different for a bit of a change.

I used to do these sorts of seminars quite often, and they are what they are. The folks aren't looking for anything beyond a little taste of what else is out there, and they are usually quite content with their own practice. I find that if the sensei (or the student) actually wants to start practicing iai they will either just come to my class or ask me if I do private lessons. The private lessons are, I presume, so that the sensei can then go teach their own students but I can't say for sure since I don't teach privately.

Almost always I give the class a choice, do one really simple kata for two or three hours so that I can teach them something deep and meaningful, or do a set of kata so that they "know a whole school" or at least a section of one depending on which school I teach them.

As for the giant seminar/demo things, I've ended up teaching some pretty crazy things at those, once ended up teaching ZNIR Toho to a group who were in that organization... I'm in ZNKR. The head guy was supposed to teach iai but ended up double booked so I got tapped since I knew the dance steps and that's all the students needed at that time anyway.

These big seminars usually include a demo at the end with all the stuff folks have come to expect. Cutting apples on student's tummies... yeah that's happened. But at one particular demo in an arena, 3000 participants, at least that many in the stands for the demo, you got the guy cutting the apple on the tummy, you got the "muddy" jiu jitsu demos, the kata to music (actually the best kata of the day... which was kind of sad... was a girl who did TKD to music, but at least she had some sort of focus and looked at whoever she was kicking in the head). You got one JJ kata that ended, then wound backwards (that was sort of cool, watching these kids unroll and unkick each other) and through it all the crowd gabbed away and paid very little attention.

But, and finally here's my point, sensei and I did our iaido bit in the middle of the demo and the place went dead silent. No music or kiai from either of us, but we had their undivided attention for the whole time we were demonstrating.

They understood that's what it was all about, and treated it as such, it demanded quiet and attention and that's what they gave it.

So for those who think you need to cut apples or whatnot at these things, give your audience a chance, treat them with a bit more respect and they will respond. Do it pure and do it simple and they'll see it for what it is.

I've never done anything but go out and do my thing, I don't explain it, don't encourage the announcer to explain it, just walk out, do the demo, and leave. The less explanation and associated whoop-de-doo, the more the audience concentrates, and the more they appreciate what you're doing.

Sept 22, 2014


Despite Rick Moranis actually being the "keymaster" I can never see the gatekeepers as Sigorney Weaver. No, for the most part they are the gormless Louis in my mind. (For those of you too young to know what I'm talking about, look up the movie Ghostbusters on your search engine.)

Gatekeeper is a term for someone whose job is to pass or prevent you from seeing the person who has what you need. In some cases this is a good thing, like a triage nurse in an emergency ward whose job is to get you to the right medical help. Your family doctor is pretty much a gatekeeper to the specialists who now do those expensive tests your doctor never did. Those folks you need to pay attention to. They sit in front of services that you need and so you have to deal with them. There is another class of gatekeeper who is much different, and these are often self-appointed and self-important, the Moranis characters rather than the Weavers.

You know these folks? The office assistant who insists on scheduling five minute chats with the boss? The newly appointed "clubs commisssioner" who makes up endless rules that must be followed on pain of de-registration? Sure you do, and if you're as old as I am you are tired, years tired, of dealing with people who have no actual power over things that really don't matter to you.

It's often a very useful thing to keep in mind just how much what's beyond the gatekeeper matters to you.

After 20 years of telling the folks I'm supposed to tell about the broken sauna in the club, I built my own. The kids on the desk were the gatekeepers to the repair crew, or even to the guy who calls the repair crew and it used to drive me crazy that a lightbulb could take three weeks to replace. But last night I passed the door of the sauna and it was dark. I took my shower, went home and jumped into my own sauna which has it's light replaced within ten minutes of being discovered. Same thing with the weight rooms which have become so cluttered with equipment that you can't move. Combine that with as many kids as can be jammed into the room and you have a recipe for disaster along with the annoyance. I simply gave up my weight room membership and bought an olympic bar with some plates. Problem solved... no wait, it was never a problem, only an annoyance. A problem would have existed if I actually cared where I lifted my weights or if the club was the only place I could find a bar and some plates. Now I save money and listen to something other than dance club music at ear-splitting volume. Bonus! I don't get lifting advice from kids trained for half an hour and half the weight of what is in my hands.

I have been a member of several volunteer organizations and have often been secretary to the same. That's the exec position I like because it's the one that means something, it's the anti-gatekeeper position, the one where you communicate with the membership. Usually. I have also left several of those volunteer organizations when regime change took the guys I was happy to support out of power and brought in a bunch of people who want to be "in charge". Gatekeepers.

None of those volunteer jobs meant enough to me to keep them beyond a certain level of annoyance. I wasn't being paid, I wasn't reliant on them to do what I wanted to do and I had no need for the ego boost of "being in charge". What battering of the gates I did, I usually did on behalf of the members rather than out of any great desire on my part to get to the other side. Pretty much every hobby I have, can be done solo or in a different organization. I have no real need to deal with the gatekeepers and that takes all their authority away.

Annoy a volunteer enough and they simply disappear.

A very long time ago I practiced Tae Kwon Do. One day a new student arrived from another organization saying he just wanted to train. We asked him why he left his old group and he said that he was tired of being asked to spend money to grade every few months. Grades that kept getting more numerous as he approached his black belt. Seems that he was up to about five stripes on his red belt, and a sixth had just been added. Beyond a certain point grades stop to matter to a budo student and the training becomes the focus. Make it difficult enough to grade and the student drops off the rank ladder, if not out of the organization completely.

You would think that folks who have been involved for decades in a system would be so invested that the gatekeepers could force whatever silliness they wanted. If it's your health, maybe that is true, maybe we do sit in offices for days waiting to be sorted and ported through the right door, but a gatekeeper ought to be very careful what they are standing in front of. Anybody out there ever switch their phone provider because of some gatekeeper or worse, gatekeeper computer program giving you the big runaround? Sure you have, provided you have an alternative. Me, I just gave up the phone. Gradings for that TKD student were not enough to keep him in his club, there were other places he could train.

I tend to join hobby organizations because of who is there, rather than what that organization does. The loyalty is to the people not the supposed perks of that group. Because of that, I have no particular problem leaving a group no longer run by those I joined for. Perhaps you too should assess what's behind that annoying gatekeeper. If you do you may find that what is being witheld is something you don't care about one way or another. Maybe like the TKD student your priorities have changed from wanting the rank to wanting to train. At that point the gatekeeper starts to look more like Louis Tully than Dana Barrett.

Sept 22, 2014

What Does Your Grade Mean To You

One of our students is past due for a senior grade. To be honest, we've bounced him three or four times I think, yet he continues to challenge and so I suggested that he might like to try grading in the next country over since they were doing one of his rank.

He looked at me as if I had just stepped off the spaceship. (He seems to do that a lot.) When I asked what I'd said now, he explained in simple and basic words that he had no interest at all in being judged by people who were not in his organization and were not his teachers. "What I care about is what you guys think, not getting the rank". He also pointed out that grading in another country does our organization no good at all. We make most of our money off of registration fees for rank and he said he was happy to give that money to us but had no reason to donate money to anyone else.

I've done all my grades for all my arts in Canada. In the case of no grades being available, it never crossed my mind to go to another country and grade. I simply waited (or helped) until a grading system was installed in Canada and then started grading. In one case my sensei handed out club grades until a national system was established and to tell the truth I value that grade more than any other I've received.

I have been told to go to Japan for a grade level I'm trying to organize in Canada right now. "You'll pass easy" I've been told. First, I don't want to pass easy, what's the point of that? For me to go as one of the leaders of a foreign country and get handed a grade is a confusing thing. Am I getting it because I "need it" to promote the art elsewhere? Because I'm forgiven all sorts of bad technique due to courtesy to my organization or teachers? I'm not someone who figures "political" grades don't exist, and I have no problem with them, but I'd simply rather get assessed in Canada by those whose opinion I value.

Political or technical, the grade means something if it's from my teachers, it means much less to me if it's from people who are not even in my lineage, who simply share a common artform.

Sept 18, 2014

Whose Student Are You?

How exclusive is your art? I find a high correlation between commercial dojo and exclusiveness in the west, with instructors not wanting to send their payng customers to the competition. Makes sense to me. On the non-commercial side I also find a high correlation between ego and exclusive in some Japanese instructors, and not a few Westerners as well. But there are instructors unquestionably beyond both money and ego who just don't want the hassle involved with folks studying under two or three instructors, especially in the same organization.

The simple thing is, students can get confused by too many voices coming at them in the first few years. Yet these are the same years that students are prone to think there is "one way" to study the arts, one correct version of a technique. With a single correct way to learn something, why not study with various teachers? You can learn the calculus from any of a thousand teachers, why not how to punch or kick? This feeling is reinforced with standardized martial arts such as the kendo federation iaido or jodo kata. There is "the book" and there is a comittee who decides what's right and everyone world wide is supposed to do the same thing and be graded on the same criteria. In that case what's the point of having a single teacher? None at all really, and kendo federation students learn from multiple teachers without any problem. A single way to do the calculus, a single way to do seitei iai and multiple viewpoints to help you learn it.

So I hear things like "my Japanese teacher" and "our teachers" which always make me do a double take. I just wasn't trained to think that way. I've got a single teacher for any particular art, one each at any one time. For things like seitei I fully understand that there are multiple instructors I can learn from, and each year it's nice to get the latest word from Tokyo, but that's seitei, what we grade in, it isn't my iai, what I learn from. That's taught by my sensei.

And then there's the sensei who practically kick your butt out the door to train with someone else for a while because you've gone deaf (stopped listening to them). I've got sensei like that and I appreciate their point, but I have never, ever, confused "go study with Fred" with "Fred is now also your sensei". I may be a pretty laid back guy, and I may teach at a University where folks come and go through my class, but even I don't really mean "you've got two or three sensei" when I say "go practice with someone else". If you are my student I have responsibilities toward you, things that can't be shared with another teacher, so pick one. The fact that I don't care which of us you pick doesn't mean I'm likely to consider you my student once more if you wander back after picking some other sensei for a while. You may not notice, but I won't be overly concerned with your progress. You'll get taught on the level of seitei, this foot goes there, but I won't be pushing your ass through a wall to teach you how not to get pushed through a wall.

The simple question is "whose student are you?" It sometimes gets complicated if you can't answer that, even in such "modern and open" organizations as the kendo federation. It's pretty clear if your sensei says "don't practice with anyone else" but if they say "go practice with Fred" you better remember who your sensei is, even while Fred kicks your butt.

Sept 16, 2014

Where is everyone?

I look on the old internet forums and there's nobody posting on budo. I look at facebook and there's a few more people there but nothing like what we used to see. Where is everyone?

My class on campus has its usual ten or twelve bodies, same as ever, but several of the instructional clubs are in danger of being cancelled today. Time was we'd see 30 to 60 folks on the first day of the more popular arts.

Cancelling classes before the students even have their courses sorted is a bit premature in my opinion, especially since there doesn't seem to be any dance group or other thing waiting for the space, but I'm not in charge.

They're building large new facilities for athletics but I think they might be able to save a lot of money if they simply wait until the number of students wanting to work out drops to fit the existing space. It's not that far off now, except for peak times in the weight-loss rooms.

So tell me, he of the ancient habits and walked to school by himself, is it the digital age? Is everyone so attached to facebook they can't get up from their chair? Is everyone playing video games instead of real world games? Have helicopter parents created a generation of laziness that won't go away? Why are there no bodies out in the sunshine and in the dingy dark dojo? Are the students all working? Do they have no spare time?

Is it just fad behaviour? Is it Zumba for the girls and MMA for the boys? I really have no idea on this stuff at all, and I've been thinking about it for ten years now.

Someone explain it to me.

Sept 15, 2014

Hunting Under Rocks

As long as I've been in the martial arts (since 1980) and even earlier than that according to the old books and magazines I devoured in those early days, folks have been hunting for and exposing fakes and frauds.

Are they more common in the martial arts? Are there no frauds elsewhere? How about your local gym? The fitness industry seems to need government intervention to get rid of the fraud about once each 7-8 years.

I haven't seen anything in the martial arts world, including the guys who end up in jail for abusing their students, that's any worse than the local dance academy, the Boy Scouts or the Girl Guides. We aren't special in any way except possibly because folks expect the martial arts to be somehow more spiritual and moral than the guy next door giving guitar lessons to wannabe rock stars. (We won't talk about the problems in various religious groups but it bears thinking about if we want to compare spiritual preaching vs practice).

But I'm not talking about that sort of abuse, sure it needs to be addressed, not here, but with the police. If it's not a criminal affair, if it's simply "bad form" or "fakes" below the threshold for criminal charges, than you're into the realm of libel and slander lawsuits. Which is fine if you get worked up about that stuff and don't mind getting sued. I've watched it happen in the budo world and in the local baseball leagues, again it's not unique to martial arts.

But there's a level below the fakes and frauds. I refer to the seeming compulsion of folks to discuss the legitimacy of koryu lines they are not involved in, have no knowledge of, or any real business discussing. In fact, even more confusing to me, discussing arts they are not likely ever to get the chance to practice. There's an element of the witch hunt to this, the blind acceptance of a black and white interpretation of something that is multiple shades of grey. The branding of one side as right and the other as wrong with no actual knowlege of the history or circumstances. A simple minded acceptance of the "common" wisdom with no critical analysis or second thoughts that perhaps all sides in the dispute might have a legitimate point.

I maintain that, just as bringing up old family arguments does not help get the cousins finally re-invited to the wedding next month, bringing up "splits" and suggesting that some lines are "in" and some are "out" is not helpful to the art you're "trying to help survive". Far from it, it acts to keep the family divided. It's especially bad when junior's new girlfriend brings up the old wounds since now everyone is wondering just how much dirty laundry (and every family has it) is getting aired in public.

It's just not helpful in any way for strangers to an art to suggest that one group or another is "the legitimate" koryu group. They simply don't know. They don't get to vote on it in some external group that declares legitimacy so what's the point? Idle chatter? Witch hunting (which is always fun but leads to such things as burning at the stake of innocent people)?

My one and only desire is that people think for themselves and not accept things blindly.

I've been at the "exposure" game a lot longer than the world wide web has been in existance by the way, but I've always found a more useful way to go at it is to shine a light on what's real rather than go hunting under rocks for what's fake.

Illegal activity and abuse is for the legal system to solve. Below that, the guys that "make it up" should be exposed yes? Before doing that, have we done the research to distinguish the outright fake from someone we've never heard of? We should or we're no better than the fishwife sharing gossip over the back fence.

What about the guy who learns from his teacher in Japan and that teacher turns out to be a fraud? Where does good faith fit into all this? There's kids in the second or third generation of a local club who are having fun and getting some exercise but back at the beginning was some serious "making it up". A problem? Not really, the stuff that didn't work for them, that was harmful to the knees and dangerous to the trees, seems to have dropped out and the instruction seems no more or less harmful than the local self-certified fitness instructors. After all the fitness industry certification business has only been going for a couple of generations as well, and when it started it certainly wasn't based on scientific research or government studies was it?

Those potential students who are deeply concerned with being "legitimate" and wanting a lineage 400 years old can easily find such things on the net these days. As long as you don't look TOO closely your unbroken lineage will be there for you to practice.

Perhaps we can feel easier about the ones we doubt if we just admit to ourselves that it's not really our concern unless someone makes it so.

Which still leaves me with the most extreme form of legitimacy-doubting. The folks who say about a fellow teacher in their own art "yes he's got a rank but he really doesn't deserve it". This probably happens more than the witch-hunts in other people's arts simply because most folks are looking inward rather than out. Most folks are zealots about their own arts and ignore the rest of the world.

Do I hear those types of comment from the folks who gave out the rank? No, because those folks are usually not stupid and would not have given the rank to someone undeserving in the first place. The criticism usually comes from someone lower down or to the side of the grading system and the complaint usually amounts to "I don't like him". Which would be a much more honest statement, let's face it.

Have I ever cast doubt on someone's right to a rank? I hope not. Have I ever pushed someone whose rank seemed a bit inflated? Damned right I have, and I always got immediate and sometimes painful answers to those questions. You've got the right to physically question someone's ability in your art, within the confines of that art, and taking into account differences in rank. You can push a senior rank any way you wish but you test lower ranks to guide them.

But even if the test shows your partner to be a bit lacking in the ability you figure his rank should require, what have you proved to yourself (and this testing should always be private). I've seen kids beat the crap out of old men in competitive matches, is this a legitimate test? No, old men are teachers not fighters, go test one of their students who are closer to your physical abilities. You don't give rank back as you lose your bone and muscle mass so you don't get the right to doubt that rank.

The fun stuff is when you question rank from a distance and question it for things like "integrity" and "don't understand the secrets". That's the time when your own rank can come into question for the very same critique so you'd better be very careful about who you say such things to.

Think about it, you say about some dude in the next county "he doesn't get the inner workings and so doesn't deserve his rank". Who have you just insulted? Dude might get upset but who gave dude his rank? That's the guy who is going to be ticked off and that might just be the same guy who gave you your rank. I've seen it happen in budo and I've seen it happen in business. My advice is not to walk into someone else's house and tell him his wallpaper is the wrong colour.

Sept 13, 2014

I am a Hard Drive

We got into a discussion about Japanese swords the other day and one of the students said "thanks for telling us stories, even if I've heard them before I forget things and it's nice that I can just ask you again".

What am I? A hard drive? I decided that's exactly what I am. Nothing I know is a big discovery to me and it's all out there somewhere, my unique power is that I've collected it all in one spot so that my students can access it.

Of course I suggested that when the hard drive crashes they'd better have cloned it or they'll be spending as much time as I did collecting all the bits and pieces again.

Students, make copies of your own hard drives. Teachers, write those books and articles, make hard copies of what you know so that come the solar flare and giant EMP that knocks our civilization back to the stone age of pen and paper (like maybe even as far back as last century) your students can pick up the pieces and move forward once again confident that when the zombie apocalypse happens they can survive with their swords.

Sept 10, 2014

Steel Balls

When I was in University... well, next year will make it 40 years ago, I got an earring. Well to be precise I got two of them, and in the "wrong ear" since I wasn't gay. Funny, I never got propositioned, so maybe gay folks were, even then, a bit more sophisticated than to run after anyone with an earring in the right ear. Not that there were many of us, there were maybe three other pierced guys on campus and nobody else had two. I got the right ear done because I slept on my left ear those days, and I got two because it was the same price as one.

Eventually, well exactly at the time I saw my redneck neighbour come home with an earring, I took them out. They weren't cool any more, they were popular. Popular isn't cool, it's popular and I never wanted to be popular. Never wanted to be cool either for that matter. I do admit to a certain amount of twitting of society (that's everyone around me), not a lot, just enough that once in a while I got my ear pierced or wore a coloured uwagi to iaido practice. I was never the guy who broke the dress code just to get kicked out of school and have something to whine about. I was the jock who "forgot" that I had a t-shirt on when I went to math class.

I just ran across a statement something along the lines of "when I'm old I'll be the cool one in the home with my tatoos". Tatoos are not cool, they're popular. Bowties are cool. Fashionable is not cool unless it's straight off the runway and only 12 of you have that dress. To be cool you have to be part of a very small group. The cool group. You can't be the only one (that's me, as I come to realize it, the only guy with two earrings in one ear) because you have to be in a group or you aren't cool. After all who defines you as cool except the rest of your group.

Hey, one piercing isn't cool any more, how about a hundred? How about a tattoo on my eyelid?

Budo? OK cool is to do a koryu that a lot of people do. Karate is popular, kids do it. Not cool, was cool in the '50s. Shindo Muso Ryu jodo is cool, just enough people know what it is that those who don't know what it is have maybe heard of it. So the uncool know about the cool group. Katori Shinto Ryu is another cool koryu, many know of it, few do it. Kage Ryu is not cool, nobody knows what it is. Niten Ichiryu is cool because even if only a few people do it, lots know about it from Musashi's writings. Jodo and iaido may be becoming uncool because the kendo federation does them (they're becoming popular). So if I am doing iaido and it's becoming popular can I do twelve more koryu to stay cool?

Piercings aren't cool, tattoos aren't cool, they're popular. Your mom has one. Your great-gramps might have one but his tattoo was done in Tahiti during the war by some old native guy with a thorn on a stick. Now that was cool.

Piercings and tattoos don't make a statement any more. They don't say anything about you. They used to say something, they used to say "I'm now a man" or "I'm in this tribe". Now they say you visited the corner tattoo parlour where they use clean needles and non-toxic ink. None of this back hut, dirt ground, piercing with a dull piece of wood and tattooing with a tap-stick that never got washed.

Which brings me to steel balls on a truck. I've always had a problem trying to figure out what those said. Now the very first pair were quite likely a joke, someone twitting the world, some guy who actually used his big pickup on the job and was saying "yep, big testosterone truck". But now they're popular, you can buy them in Canadian Tire, you don't have to get a blacksmith to forge you a pair. So what do they say now? "My manhood is this giant truck that's jacked up so high it's useless as a work vehicle?" I suspect this is so because I have been getting the urge to buy a red sports car.

You gotta think a bit about what you are saying to folks with your body marks, your fuzzy dice equivalents, with your choice of martial art. You may not be giving out the message you think you are.

Sept 9, 2014

Musashi was Right... Again

Monday morning after a weekend of pounding metal with the Sei Do Kai folks. The kid's weekly culture nights morphed into a weekend knifemaking class that saw 8 of us huddled around four forges in Floradale at Thak Iron Works. Yes that is a plug for Thak the Armourer (Robb Martin) who has been a part of the fun and games in our stange little world of swords for years. http://Thak.ca/

I was informed of the class a couple of months ago by the students who arranged it all and simply told me I was going.

forged knives
The younger the smith, the bigger the blade.

The reason I'm writing this is that I was reminded of Musashi's comments on mastery in one art being transferred to another art. This class of 8 was the first time the folks at Thak had tried a course like this and as Ryan said they had visions of disaster with so many newbies boucing around the place. Turns out Pam is a pretty persuasive organizer and they gave it a shot.

Turns out too, we were a pretty hard hammering, steady handed crew and nobody had a broken or even seriously warped blade come heat treatment. Ryan said he was impressed but let's face it, with no disasters come no teaching moments... The students all cozied up to the coal fires and collected blisters and the occasional sting of a stray spark without dropping their hammers on their feet. Filing and finishing went as well as could be expected and the result was 8 lovely knives of all different sizes and shape. Mine was of course the smallest at about 6 inches and I figure it was the easiest to finish. Age and treachery and all that, I was done and having a rest at least an hour before everyone else. Even managed to avoid cutting myself while sharpening, only to cut myself on Robb's axe that he brought out to tempt us into another class. Who wants to shave with an axe??? I did like the idea of taking a material and making it bigger, can't really do that with wood where all you do is take material away. Once I got to day two and we were removing metal I was at home.

Why so easy a time? I figure the class simply transferred their sword swinging skills into the hammer. Then looking around I didn't see anyone trying to elbow their files into their blades, they were all in a nice stable stance and were using their hips to get into it. Of course having the calmness to shift four inches to avoid a sword coming at your head will make you confident that your forging partner isn't going to hit you in the elbow with his hammer.

In short, I figure Musashi was right, skill in swinging sword will transfer into learning how to swing a hammer.

Thanks to Thak Ironworks for a great weekend, I hope the cleanup today isn't too difficult and there wasn't too big a dent in the coal supply. The kids are already planning the next class.

Robb making sure Kim doesn't stick his hand in the oil instead of his blade.

Sept 8, 2014

So You Wanna be a Master

Well first you should figure out what a master is, because the term is a bit muddy. The best I've heard in a while is in relation to a champion. A champion is someone who achieves a goal once, a master is someone who realizes that you have to repeat that achievement many times.

Everyone wants to be a master, everyone daydreams. What I heard recently from one of my students is fairly typical. Sure I want to master budo but I also need to spend time with my family and work and do my other hobby too.

Good luck with that but my own pursuit of budo mastery didn't work out so balanced. Over the 35 years I've been doing this I've missed a lot of birthdays for my kids by sitting on grading panels, I've missed a lot of work advancement by going to seminars instead of doing weekend overtime and I've built most of that on a rather peculiar urge toward singlemindedness. The most recent example of this trait was when I was mowing the lawn and backed into the driveway just as the neighbour was backing out of our shared lane. I hit the side of the truck with my butt and my foot slipped under her back wheel. Thankfully it was the inside of my foot she backed over and I did a rather easy breakfall onto the lawn before booting her bumper a few times to tell her to move forward off my ankle before she got out. She was understandably a bit upset but I just shooed her off and finished the lawn before checking out the ankle. Yes, finished the lawn because that was the job at hand, then I checked for injury. Stupid right?

But consider you're in a fight for your life and your opponent gets a good blow in, maybe breaking a bunch of ribs or your arm. Do you stop and let him kill you or do you hide the injury and grin at him before counter-attacking? That sort of bloody-mindedness is necessary for being the top in any field, for being a master of budo or sports or chess or...

Top athletes are those who can push past pain most efficiently and do it while neglecting other parts of their lives. It's pretty clear that you've only got so many competitive years in you, wasting them on hobbies like a home life or a job is counter-productive, you've got to eat, sleep and drink training.

Budo isn't a lot different, but it's not as competitive as snowboarding or running so you can spend less than 8 hours a day to float to the top. You've got decades instead of years to improve, but it still needs a nerd-ish devotion to training.

What is mastery? I don't know. It might be something like this. Years ago I had a varsity wrestler in to show my self defence class how to resist takedowns. As he showed them this or that movement I was explaining to them what he was doing with his weight shifts and hip movements. Afterward he commented that I knew a lot about wrestling. I don't, but I know balance when I see it. Is that budo mastery? I don't know, it's probably part of it.

Another part has to do with being a good mentor, and a devotion to something larger than your own ego. A certain warped version of the improvement of humanity by concern for your art. Recently I was talking with an old friend who has lived in Japan for a long time. The subject of a fellow who just received an 8dan in one art and has now mostly dropped it to concentrate on getting an 8dan in another art came up. I was mystified, while my friend was confused at my confusion. Obviously you have to concentrate for several years to get an 8 dan so of course you would neglect one art to pass the grade in another. We were thinking at cross purposes, he was talking about the mechanics of passing a grade, something that is very important in Japan. I was thinking of the waste of time put in on training in one art to get 8dan just to let it all go in order to switch to another training. My problem is that giving an 8dan to someone who just walks away to work on another art is inefficient. He should consolidate the gains he's made in the first art, not let that peak in ability drop away just to collect another piece of paper in another art.

To explain my attitude a bit better we talked about my own progression through the ranks. I've been eligible for my next grade in Jodo for several years now and my instructors in Japan have been telling me (and my friend in Japan) that I should come over and grade. I haven't done that because it would be an entirely useless rank, it would do our organization here absolutely no good at all since we need at least four others with the same grade to sit on a grading panel. What use the rank? None at all to me (no amount of rank is any good to me personally) or to others.

The only point of rank at the top is to allow others to rank, at least that's been my experience. I was simply not taught to seek rank for its own sake. There was nobody to do gradings when I started my iai and jo training, so we didn't slot into a system that says rank is important in itself. Rank, for my cohort, is something that allows us to fit into the wider organization and grow the art by doing gradings for the junior ranks who work toward gradings rather than toward the art itself.

When they switch from "getting a black belt" to "getting better" they are showing improvement in my eyes. Of course I have my doubts that switching into the sort of person who neglects family and work for training in an obscure sword or stick art from another culture, one that will never accept or admit mastery in a foreigner (if we will be honest with ourselves for a moment) is a good thing. It is, however, the most efficient way to mastery of the art. Most of the very good budo people I know have been quite selfish in their training, very few of them have heeded the caution I have heard from several of my seniors. Family first, Job second, Budo third.

It's like when a very rich person is on their deathbed and says they wish they'd spent more time with their family. If they had they might not be as rich. The fact that they "mastered" the economy came at a cost.

Define mastery before you seek it, and make sure you are willing to pay the cost.

If you still want to be a master, here is one last piece of advice, again not from me but it makes sense from my viewpoint. Stop trying to be a master. Don't daydream. One of the characteristics of those who have made it to the top is a daily setting of achievable goals. Don't say "I want to be an 8dan", instead say "I want to do this movement in this kata a bit more efficiently" or "I want to understand how to use my hips here". Set yourself goals that have a timespan of years rather than a lifetime.

But if you want to be liked during your life and have no regrets at your death, maybe consider Family first, then work, then budo.

Sept 5, 2014

Will It Take Full Contact?

That's a question I get a lot because I sell wooden swords for use in practice. Sure it will, it will take the full contact in my practice, but I have no idea at all if it will take full contact in yours. The question in itself does give me a clue, and I usually tell folks that no, it likely won't take your full contact practice. The very fact that you're asking tells me that you hammer things together really hard and as I've said before, a baseball bat sometimes doesn't survive a ball, try swinging that two or three inches of ash against a telephone pole and see if it survives.

I am also in the process of yet another return of an ultralight iaito. I say "these are not for regular use", I say "these are a third the price of an iaito which is intended to be used for daily practice" I don't know how else to put it, they're a recovery tool for injury when you can't lift the weight of a regular blade, or they're for highly experienced people who want to check the relaxation of their wrists. The one coming back now I've been assured has a problem with the saya and I won't assume it was bought by someone who figured they suddenly found an incredible bargain... but why do I keep seeing these things in the hands of beginners at seminars? It's a talented beginner who can use one of these without breaking it.

But buying an "iaito" sometimes isn't much better. Many years ago we bought five Japanese iaito for our club. I broke mine by swinging it. I mean in the air, when I stopped the cut the blade kept going. Fortunately it wedged in the hilt since it broke in the predictable place, the cut corner of the munemachi. The others broke through various things as falling over and also at the predictable place. Turns out they were made of pot metal, you know, the stuff that bathroom stall coat hangers are made of, the ones that are always broken. Some bright light must have figured they could save some money. Hopefully that isn't happening any more, it was, after all, quite a while ago and I haven't heard of pot metal iaito recently.

There have been some rumblings about shinken lately, as in "you have to use a Japanese shinken for iaido because nothing else is safe". Really? I class those statements right up there with the question "Are these blades battle ready?" I dunno, I was always taught not to slam a crowbar sideways into a stud (that's what a sledge hammer is for) and to wear eye protection when hitting a nail with a hammer. Metal breaks, metal that has been barely smelted with charcoal and barely forged together and folded repeatedly to remove the slag, a blade that is tested by smacking it sideways onto water to see if it breaks isn't something I've got a huge amount of faith in. A blade that is ground out of a coke-smelted standardized bar is something that I've got a fair bit more confidence in with regard to flaws.

But it's iaido, no hitting of other stuff, so we are talking about what? The fittings? I have to admit I've booted some Japanese World War II mounts out of my class. Watching powder fall out of the hilt when I grip it isn't something I enjoy seeing. The issue isn't where a blade is made, it's whether or not it's properly made for the use and I'll repeat what my old man taught me on the job "the right tool for the right job".

Tough blades? Mythbusters will attach a sword to some hydraulic machine and clash it up against another sword held in a vice. What does that prove?

Not much.

If you want to safely test a sword and see what it will take, go to http://www.americanbladesmith.com/ and check out how to do their blade tests, especially the bending test. You'll quickly find out how tough your blade is.

But consider please, for a moment, that you are not a vice grip.

The sword is in the hands of a human being and you can adapt and modify what surface is struck in a block or deflection, and what amount of the opposing force is absorbed by the blade in your hands. The rest of that force can be absorbed by your hands, or avoided altogether by a body shift.

I have long intended to make a bokuto from pine and videotape it being mauled by some tough wood like Ipe while remaining intact and useable. Recently I did just this but with cedar, a wood that's even weaker than pine. This video is online somewhere for those who chew up bokuto by slamming them together as hard as they can, and then suggest that a tougher wood or a thicker bokuto needs to be created. That cedar bokuto simply lives in the club box now and gets pulled out to be used in Jodo practice whenever someone wants a light weapon. I was going to break it but I got fond of it, and I can break pretty much any bokuto in the box at will. Just slam it against another one held stiffly at 90 degrees.

Here's a simple test to demonstrate the role of the swordsman in receiving a strike to a sword.

1. Hold a bokuto out at arms length and allow someone to strike down on it at full force at 90 degrees. It will of course be slammed into the ground and likely broken in half.

2. Buy a new bokuto from SDKsupplies.com

3. Repeat the experiment, but this time at the moment of impact between the partner's bokuto and your own held out at arms length, move backward and pull your bokuto toward yourself so that the bokuto is moving strongly sideways as it is hit.

4. Check the amount of damage inflicted in each case.

5. Consider redirecting the force of the attacking blade in some direction other than 90 degrees to a fixed blade.

It may sound like I'm complaining about my customers but I'm really not. It's just that you don't drive nails with a wrench. You can, but it's not safe. You don't cut wood with a sword designed to cut flesh, you don't slam wood into wood and expect it to survive long. Let's face it, I'd rather refund a few dollars than have someone hurt themselves, I'm only partly in this for the money, mostly I want to see folks enjoy the arts reasonably and safely.

The right tool, used in the correct way, for the right job.

Aug 31, 2014

Beginning and Ending, let the middle take care of itself.

Can't remember where, but somewhere in the old iai teachings is the instruction to teach the beginning and the end and not worry so much about the middle of the kata. Make sure the students work on the approach and on the disengage rather than concentrate on the actual technique in the middle. In other words, what we call zanshin is the most important part of the practice.

I've got to agree with this. As an aikido student and teacher I can be awfully sloppy about the approach and the finish of a technique, it's something I've spent 34 years trying to fight.

With the kata based arts it's easy to make the approach and disengage part of the performance, even though it, technically, doesn't matter if we approach from three steps or maintain concentration as we back off for five. It's the part in between that has the differences from kata to kata, the bookends tend to be the same for all. This attaching of beginning and ending to the technique tends to make it easier to pay attention to them.

But why is that a good thing? Simply put, it makes you better, it makes your practice more realistic, more vigorous and less dangerous. When you are sloppy on your approach and attack it's much more dangerous to do the techniques at full speed and force. A sloppy attack means surprises, it means an off balance attacker, it means more chance of getting clocked from an unexpected direction. In short, it means you have to practice with a lot of your attention and energy reserved.

Having a set approach of a certain number of steps during which you are expected to pay close attention to your partner means that you aren't going to miss the attack. You will be concentrating on the small movements that mean the attack is beginning. You are paying attention as your partner enters the attack distance which is a very good thing, knowing where the "safe line" is may someday save your nose from being spread across your face.

Being ready to move means that your partner can attack with full speed without the risk of mistakes due to miscommunication. It means you are safer because you're ready.

The disengagement is also a useful phase, who knows when a partner is going to "teach you a lesson"? With full attention given to the movement out of combat range you will cut down the worries about being hit after you figured the technique was done.

At its most basic, zanshin gives permission to your partner to try and take your head off.

So teach the beginning and the end and let the middle take care of itself. Your students will be ready, they will be safe and they will push themselves to learn the middle by cranking up the intensity within the envelope of attention you have created for them. If half of your teaching time is spent trying to get them to crank it up or crank it down, the learning curve will be shallow. Set the stage and let the learning happen at its own speed.

Aug 27, 2014

Ask him, he's the sensei

Often when I'm standing around in a seminar a student will come up to me and ask a question. The easiest thing in the world is to answer it, but that's not the way to do it.

At a seminar there's one instructor... well OK I've been in classes where I was team teaching but that was a long time ago and you need to be talking mostly with someone else's voice. We were both students of the same guy and it was really him teaching rather than the two of us. Regardless, one voice or it gets into a discussion and thats best left for a regular class or, better, beer afterward.

A student comes up and says "how was it that we did it again?" Since I was listening I can answer, but I try not to. If I'm over in the corner explaining things to students the instructor will get distracted and wonder what's happening across the room. If I'm standing right next to the instructor and get the same question it's just plain rude to answer for him. He's standing right there, ask him directly.

In our main seminar of the year I get a lot of questions when I drift toward the back of the crowd. Shyness is a problem for those who don't want to admit they don't know something but want to know it anyway. OK I'm not being generous, students just don't want to be centered out by asking sensei directly. In those cases I'll often ask sensei the question myself. I don't care if I look stupid, I am stupid, I embrace stupid, it's the way I find room in the brain to learn. Even if I know the answer I'll ask the question. If a student asks the question even after I've told them the answer prior to the seminar, it means they aren't hearing me and will likely hear the visiting sensei better so again, I ask.

A student may not have heard the last instruction. If I can answer in a word or two I will answer of course, for the sake of saving time, but if you can't hear, move forward. If I'm answering those simple questions, however, I'm missing the next bit of instruction myself. Don't be surprised if I tell you to move up rather than answering. Or maybe just put my hand on your back and shove.

As an instructor in a seminar I have noticed that I stop talking when someone else in the room is answering a question. That sort of thing doesn't bother me but if two people are talking, about half the room will be getting less than half the information. You can't listen to two things at the same time. I've noticed that the explaining folks will finish, notice the silence, look at me and say "right?". Yes, usually they're right, sometimes I'll start with "absolutely, but..... " Remember that I'm thoroughly western, I don't have an expectation that folks will listen intently to my every word just because I'm up front. Others might not be so tolerant of multiple voices in the dojo, so keep the co-instruction to the minimum and if you're a senior it's best to say "ask him, he's the sensei".

All this is in reference to my current practice, mostly sword arts taught in solo kata so it lends itself to to explanation and copying. Other arts may encourage a bit more chatter but every now and then in partner kata work I'll hear a class erupt in chatter the moment sensei says "try". It's as if we have to re-talk through the instructions before we actually move the body. Again, I don't mind so much, I expect my seniors to explain a bit to the juniors since I'm a rather lazy teacher, but I do draw the line at five minutes or so, if nobody has tried to hit their partner on the head after five minutes of chat it's time to yell.

In general, if you wanna teach, go start your own class, don't teach in front of sensei, it's just rude.

Aug 27, 2014

Step back and watch

At a seminar it's easy to jump in and practice what you know or what you think you just saw, but it's a lot more important to step back and watch what is being taught.

I'm sure all those who attend seminars will be familiar with the partner who seemingly watches sensei demonstrate the technique and then proceeds to do something else. Obviously what he was taught.

Not so very bad, he doesn't learn, your learning is a bit delayed. What is more annoying is the fellow who actually saw the technique and proceeds to show you how they do it in their dojo. If you're not very careful you may lose what sensei just showed in the onslaught of "better" information from your fellow student.

This situation never arises from ill intent but from inattention and the earnest desire to teach. Mind you, I'm not sure why anyone would pay to attend a seminar if they weren't interested in what was being taught. Better they should go get paid for teaching in the second case, that way they could help an entire class instead of just their partner. Let's hope they can hold the attention of that class better than the current sensei is holding this.

A third case is the fellow who arrives with several students and spends the class telling his students how the sensei is misguided and just plain wrong. You've seen this too? Again it makes me wonder why anyone would spend money to ignore or in this case, actively resist the instruction offered.

I'm old enough now that I can't jump in and bang away for three days, so I spend quite a bit of time watching sensei instead of practicing. In some cases I am asked to help out. Because of this I get some time to watch the class as well as step back and listen to what sensei is saying. I'm especially careful if I'm helping out because the understanding is that help means just that, to help teach what the instructor is offering, not to wander off on your own tangent. That last is actually harder for me than you might think. It's easy to show the shape of a thing accurately, but if I have to show the bones of the technique, the underlying principle of what sensei is explaining, it's often easier to slip into my own body knowledge rather than guess at someone else's.

Paying careful attention helps, sensei often gives clues to the principles while he's speaking. Attention, unfortunately, is not what I see with most students. This is a rank-related thing. Junior students tend to think that there's only one right way to do perform art. As a result they watch long enough to figure out "which technique it is" and then go into their heads to rehearse until they get to their partner. It's a natural thing, humans like to take shortcuts and they like to know stuff. Combine that and you get stuff slotted into file folders that may not actually be the best place for the note. The longer a student has been around, the less likely they are to be eager to get to the practice and the more patient they are with the explanations. They want to understand what sensei is trying to teach. They get that there is "more than one way to skin a cat" (as my gran used to say, and I'm sure I'll get hell for that). They step back from swinging their arms around and watch.

To put it another way, beginners figure a seminar is a chance to practice. Seniors figure a seminar is a chance to learn.

From the front of a class it's pretty easy to see the heads turn and the eyes wander while sensei "drones on" about some minor point. Those are the folks who will then do something different than what sensei just asked, in some cases something that sensei has just specifically asked them not to do. By thinking "yep I know that one" the students saved lots of time and got to the important stuff, the doing. What they have actually not done is saved any time at all. While sensei is talking they aren't practicing so what has happened is a chunk of their lives has dribbled away in contemplating the peeling paint in the corner of the room. Better maybe to step back from the assumptions and actually watch sensei during those stupid waiting around times between kata.

Aug 25, 2014

Sensei is the syllabus

Had a great kage ryu seminar last weekend with Colin Watkin sensei in Calgary. I know it was good because my right hamstring is screaming even now a week later. To explain, you are drawing swords about five feet long by doing the longest, deepest lunge you can manage and then twisting your hips. This puts a bit of a strain on the old groin I'll tell you, even the kids were complaining and I was thankful for the length of my arms. I would be crippled now if I hadn't spent most of the weekend recording it.

Colin traveled from the Philippines for three days and was due the same back home again. Colin is an "old Japan hand" who started in Kendo, moved through various other sword arts and finally settled on Kage Ryu and Niten Ichiryu. He's one of those folks who has enough paper to do a wall in his house so always worth listening to.

We have been talking syllabus and curriculum around here and the Kage Ryu is an interesting case study. We introduced the school once more into our classes in Guelph on Thursday (had done it last time I saw Watkin sensei, three years ago maybe, but it didn't stick) and one of the students asked about a syllabus. I think he is somewhat concerned at my recent teaching method which is to come in and go at one of five or six schools at some level and expect the students to sort it all out for themselves (what other use is "sempai" anyway?) It does eventually make sense (I hope) but I can see where it would be rather frustrating and I sympathize but hey, classes are mostly all about me aren't they? OK OK, I know I'm a bad teacher because another of my students had a word of concern that we blasted through the entire curriculum in two hours before we even figured out how to swing the swords. I dunno... we spent at least 15 minutes on suburi...

Anyway, I replied without thinking that "the syllabus is whatever Watkin sensei says it is". What I meant is that the school is more or less down to Watkin sensei as likely the youngest and most active instructor (if not the only one) left. The school was never popular, and my impression is that it was three or four of them practicing at the best of times. I do know that Watkin sensei had some concerns about passing it along outside the prefecture where it has been for hundreds of years but you do what you have to do, teach those who will learn, if you want to get the school to the next generation. Otherwise it's gone. (I think it helped that after that first seminar a few years ago some of the students went to visit in the Philippines which showed a willingness to carry on.)

So the syllabus of the school is whatever Colin will be able to get to the next generation. Hence a lot of video shot and notes taken during the seminar I hope, and more visits to Watkin sensei by the main students to keep learning.

Now comes the interesting part, curriculum-wise. The school has a core set of waza, a group of movements that are learned in order and form the meaning of the school. Anyone outside the school will never see these waza because they aren't to be shown. When the school does a demonstration the students are expected to develop a kata that is accurate and faithful to the school, and show that. In other words, all anyone outside will ever see is variations, never the core.

The fun part is that it's pretty easy to get confused about what's core and what's variation during these seminars, so the syllabus may be a but of a mystery even to a long time student. There isn't anything written down at the moment that will fix the school in stone as core and variation. I enjoyed this way of learning immensely, it's just like I do it! I suspect us old folks may wander a bit naturally and figure the youngsters will sort it out?... Personally, I plan to be watching a lot of video at the cabin next week, and making a lot of notes to sort things into a framework for myself and others who didn't have the time to step back and watch.

So as I said, the syllabus is whatever Watkin sensei says it is, and this is as it should be.

Aug 23, 2014

The Holy Writ

The idea of a set curriculum in a koryu often presumes that a "real" ryu hands down, or attempts to hand down techniques unchanged from the past. Is this true? We now have 4-5 generations of video hanging around for some lineages. Are the most "legitimate" of them the same as previous generations? Even with the ability of teachers to check back using film and video I suspect we'll see considerable variation in almost all arts. I further suggest this is something that's inevitable, so over several generations we get changes that some folks rail against in one generation.

What's a "ryu", What's a "soke"? I think the terms are interpreted pretty narrowly by Westerners, but let's assume we mean them to be a defined, confirmable line of instructors (ryu) and the designated current "owner" of said line (soke).

Given that a soke can do whatever he wants with an art since he "owns" it, that would include changing the art to something that's unrecognizable. Now if he does, I suspect that he would lose a lot of students, particularly those who believe that a ryu should never change and that want to study the "arts as invented by those who died on battlefields testing the techniqes" and all that. You will get senior students who simply go off and teach the old stuff. You may get junior students who do the same, with all the intelligence that implies.

Why would a soke do such a thing? Hard to say but I can think of many reasons offhand, perhaps one or two of them good.

The senior students who go off will probably preserve the old methods, the juniors will probably come up with something as different as the current soke is doing since their techniques aren't as "set in stone" as the seniors, but what about those who stay? What of a long time student of the art who looks different than the soke?

Well, I suggest that he will look different. Is that a problem? Perhaps for some, beginners like to see consistancy because they aren't really able to see what works and what doesn't. They see what's right and what's wrong by the shape of the kata, it takes decades to see the effect of a movement that is essentially a dance step. Is a senior student's physical difference a problem to the new soke? Depends on the soke of course but loyalty to the art or to the man can be different, and one can be loyal to a soke without being concerned about mimicing the shape of his movements. This can be especially true for senior students who are older and more experienced than the soke. You didn't know that soke can be other than the oldest, most experienced person? Sure they can, for all sorts of reasons. Maybe the art is intensely local and the senior local person isn't the most senior overall. Maybe the new soke is the one who can keep the various senior students from flying away. Maybe he's the one to bring in new blood. Maybe he's a great administrator or a great researcher or maybe he's the former soke's kid.

Regardless, if he's a good soke he'll know that the spirit of the art lies in its students and not in the dance moves, as long as said dance moves are functional, that they are true to the original concept of the school, that they work. The other thing that is required is that the kata are preserved. I talk a lot about functional arts, and tend to downplay the shape of the kata but you will not find me actually making up new kata and presenting them as real (yes real) or wandering from what I consider the intent of the kata. I have made the best notes I can and will teach the kata as I was taught them, with the original explanations, whether or not I agree with or understand those explanations, because the kata are the holy writ, they are the syllabus of the school. If I teach a variation it's labelled "variation" not "original". Even if it's original to me.

If the kata are handed down faithfully the school can survive several generations of mediocre teachers until a talent shows up and re-invigorates the art. You can find examples of this in almost any koryu, sometimes so shockingly that the revival may be called a recreation. The test is in the curriculum and in the existance of a teacher before. If the reviving sensei was taught accurately and sticks to the kata it's the school. Taking the name and a list of the kata of a dead school from a scroll and inventing movements is less likely to be what the school was, due to the rather poor preservation of instructional materials in the Japanese arts. You won't find manuals like the midieval sword books of Europe which are pretty much step by step but are still subject to large variation of interpretation.

The Japanese schools have their holy writ, they are the kata. The book may be copied well or poorly but when interpreted by a teacher with physical talent and an understanding of the underlying principles, the art comes truly alive.

Aug 22, 2014

Just Practice.

Further to my post on koryu legitimacy and folks claiming to be or opining about soke and headmasters and whatnot. I have been having multiple discussions with very senior folks for the last few months who have expressed a large desire to simply practice and get out of all these concerns, claims and counterclaims of rank and rule.

I'm with them. I have no desire for more rank than is useful to or wanted by my organization (which at the moment means no more rank than I have). I have no use for koryu paper since I have more or less outlived my instructors. Who would give me paper? Current claimants to leadership of some of the koryu that I practice are junior to me, what would I do with certifications from them? What meaning would they have? Perhaps put them in the "dresser drawer of honour" as one fellow practicioner calls it. Organizational rank these days is another strange thing. As the organization becomes younger I get older, as the kids move in and take over they will be changing the rules and modifying the standards that I graded under. What does that mean? Was I wrong? Are they wrong? Is the art going to hell in a handbasket? How about I just practice and let other folks worry about that stuff.

What about those cases where I am the "last man standing", most senior of my line of instruction, I lost the tontine and have no more teacher. What do I do? In the past I have worried about this, I have been concerned that I have no formal paper that says I can teach, or I have been concerned that there are outside organizations that should have a say in the situation. It's a real concern, I want to do right by my teachers, I want to do right by my students and by the art.

These days I want to practice and since I need partners I teach. So far no lightning has come out of the sky to fry my blasphemous bones, and what my teachers taught me is being passed along. That's the important thing isn't it? I teach because I was taught, I practice what I was given to practice.

I never had much self-worth caught up in the arts so there's no particular concern on my part what other people or organizations have to say about what I do. I just want to practice and that's the real bottom line, it's the practice. A school, a lineage is the connection between student and teacher, or between two folks who get together and swing swords, regardless of teacher, for the sake of the art. For the sake of meeting each other and sharing a common experience together.

When you're young you get all worked up about rank and legitimacy and how much money you have and what car you drive and all sorts of status symbols. As you get older you think more about how nice it is to get up in the morning and not have a knee collapse under you. Hospice workers will tell you that when most folks are on their deathbed they don't go on about how much money they made or how big their house was, they talk about the time they should have spent with their family and friends. The important thing about the martial arts is the practice, not the power. A city bus will get you the same place as that million dollar super-car, both will get you to the dojo to train. I don't care any more which one gets me there, I just want to train and if I'm the most senior person there I'm going to be up front. If I'm not I'm going to be not up front.

Either way I'm going to be training because when it comes down to the bare bones, there is just practice.

Aug 14, 2014

Who Lasts, Wins.

We're heading into a weekend of koryu practice here in Calgary. Kage Ryu and Niten Ichiryu from Colin Watkin sensei and I'm reminded once again of a fundamental point about the old schools.

Who lasts, wins, it's as simple as that. There are hundreds of dead koryu out there and dozens that are "dead arts walking" right now. There are also some which are rebuilding and some which are flourishing.

In no case does the school's wellbeing rely on an outsider's opinion of it's legitimacy. The real way it works is quite simple. There is no one authenticating body to declare legitimacy. There are associations of koryu and some of those are associated with the Japanese education ministry but that's about as good as you can get. An association recognizes a group as being "X-ryu" and for them, that's what it is. Another organization down the street may have a different "X-ryu".

A certain art/line may have a great leader, one who can bring the feuding senior folks together, expand the art to lots of new blood, and teach the techniques efficiently and in such a way that the membership sticks around. That art/line grows.

Another art/line may have a lousy leader who chucks out or chases away the senior members and doesn't manage to bring in any new blood. That art/line is not growing and if it doesn't change in this or the next generation, it dies.

What gets decided on this or that discussion about the legitimacy of either line of "X-ryu" makes no difference whatsoever. We don't actually get a vote unless we're practicing that school (which is our vote). The sole exception is the fellow who has a romantic notion about legitimacy and wants to "practice an art with direct links to the ancient samurai" or some such. This fellow may be highly concerned with what other people think about an art, right up until he finds a teacher (and votes by joining). His concerns may be about "accurately transmitted techniques" or "ryu secrets handed down to the senior members" or some magical "true lineage" and he may join based on opinions about these. Stick around long enough and you're going to find that's not enough. A good teacher and a good leader is much more important to the long term practice of each student and the survival of the school into the next generation.

I'm old enough to remember the massive crisis when it was discovered that Aikido had "roots", that it wasn't invented whole-cloth by Ueshiba. Where'd that crisis of faith go? Same place all these koryu legitimacy arguments go. Concerns about legitimacy between lineages is a bit of sand in the oyster of the art... and 99.9 percent of the time that bit of sand does NOT turn into a pearl.

Starting arguments and keeping them going does not bring people together, ever, despite TV psychology ideas about "talking it out". The koryu are NOT families or even employers. Nobody really has to stay in one or another dojo despite notions to the contrary about loyalty and whatnot. What prevents you from walking out of practice and never coming back? You don't HAVE to talk it out or listen to someone rant and rave, not like you have to listen to your boss or crazy Uncle George. Arguments mean lost students and a weaker art overall, plain and simple.

Each and every person inside a line of practice who argues about legitimacy has an agenda, to maximize the legitimacy of their line and, by implication to minimize the legitimacy of other lines. "My dad is bigger than your dad" means, by implication, that I'm better than you. It's an ego thing and it's as childish as that. To ask if any line (back-street karate studio or senior student of a past "soke") is "legitimate" is simply to ignore the reality of practice.

Is the current queen of England, or Holland, legitimate?

Some will say yes, some no. Both have the crown, but I could pick up the crown and wear it, does that make me king? Perhaps if you believe in magic. What about the previous king or queen's wishes? Laws and rights of succession? What about the wishes of the subjects? What about the murders and changes of lineage in the past, inevitably there are breaks in the line so which are the true lines and which the pretenders?

The question is not useful. Things are as they are until they change, then they're not as they were but are as they now are. What you can ask, and what is useful, is "who's your granny" and I find myself asking that quite a bit these days. If I can stick you in a line, know who taught your teacher, than I know who you are, how you're going to move and swing your sword or jo, and to a large extent, what you're going to say on an internet forum. I know this because kids become their parents and students become their teachers.

Let's go back to royalty. How useful is it for members of the third generation past a murder and change of lineage to keep the hatred of the "new regime" alive in their kids? How about tribal memory? How useful is it to teach your grandkids all about the insult the guys over in the next valley gave to your grandfather? Does any of this help unite the country in peaceful cooperation? Do I have to extend the analogy to religion?

Arguing about who's the "legitimate" headmaster of this or that koryu is not useful within the art referred to. It is especially un-useful to recruit people outside the art to take sides. It is also un-useful and just plain baffling to me when people who have no connection or historical knowledge go hunting for "pretenders to the throne".

The useful question is "who's their granny". What any teacher chooses to call himself, or his line, is, first, none of our business and second, meaningless outside his own line. There is no external authority to which we may appeal which will decide who is "soke" and who is not. Only tracing his instruction back to this or that past instructor has any real meaning. Kings and Queens of nations have no way, short of "possession is 9/10 of the law" to prove their legitimacy. Thus the appeal to the divine right of rule. I suppose claiming the authority of gods is as useful as appealing to the democratic masses, but neither is as reliable as having a nice solid military to back you up.

In the case of a koryu the equivalent would be a nice solid set of students who carry the line on into the future. Like I said, who lasts, wins.

Aug 14, 2014

Rivers broad and deep

My training has all been of the "go through the school from front to back and start again" so that tends to be the way I teach, but there is a lot of merit in doing the basic training until you understand it in the bones and then learning all the other stuff.

The deep.

For instance, one of my sensei learned the first kata of his iaido school and then practiced it for years before going on to the next one. Another sensei did the first kata of his school for seven years before moving on. Neither of these kata would take more than thirty seconds to learn, but that wasn't the point. When the basic way of moving is worn into the bones it doesn't matter what other movements you add in, it will all be correct. In other words, you learn the underpinnings, then you pick up the variations quickly and easily. Think of a car frame and engine with a bunch of bodies you can drop on top. Build the frame well and the various bodies will simply slot in.

The broad.

In the broad method you are moving through the kata sooner, but you should be working on the basic movements all along. The fundamentals need to be what is emphasized, rather than the dance steps of the many kata you are learning. This way, in about the same amount of time you will learn the school in the deep, you learn it in the broad. The goal in both cases is to understand the principles, the roots of the school, the place where you can invent kata and it will be correct.

The shallow

The problem happens when students learn "broadly" and confuse their memorization of the dance steps, the waving around of the sword in various patterns with the meaning of the school. A budo isn't a set of complicated movements, it's an understanding of how to apply power, how to avoid being hit and how to prevent openings. The shallow is simply a display of pretty feathers.

You can explore a river in it's depth or it's breadth first, as long as you explore it all. If you only stick to the shallow you'll never know it.

Aug 13, 2014

Economics for Budo

I had a rather interesting dream last night. Was talking to a friend or a student, not sure which, but they were working on their doctorate and I was sort of thinking that I should be doing that too. Then I realized that I was almost 60 and it was too late to make a career and earn a living as a PhD.

Which brought up the whole sensei depression thing but that's another story. What I reminded myself of was the choices I did make as a youngster pre-retirement. I took a buyout from my job at around 50 and have been supporting the family on the martial arts supply business ever since. By support I mean we have managed to sort of, mostly, pay the daily bills and buy groceries without going too far into debt and occasionally getting the credit cards down to less than maximum.

So here is some of the Economics wisdom I learned from my family and how to apply it to budo practice.

Get a job.

The best investment advice I can give you is to have a regular income from somebody else. We got two jobs working as lab technicians for a University and that managed to buy the house and the cottage before we both retired.

From a budo point of view, a job is where you build your lifetime capital, the principle you will live off for the rest of your life. You want to find a good, steady instructor who is teaching you something that is reliable, dependable. Something that, if you move to another place has skills that are transferrable. In other words, learn something common and widespread as your baseline. I learned Aikido which, while not as widespread as, say, Tae Kwon Do or Karate, is pretty well represented anywhere. I also learned TKD which is something you can find on nearly every streetcorner it seems. Those arts provided me with a core of skills that have been useful since then.

Live like a student.

We buy used cars and run them into the ground. We refinish our own floors and paint our own walls after practicing on rental units. Most landlords will buy you the paint and rent you the drum sanders, learn on other people's stuff. In other words, don't spend more than you have to. My grandmother taught me the value of straightening nails and re-using them to fix the greenhouse. Really. I still get the urge to re-use lumber and while I resist the urge to straighten nails I do reuse screws and our new deck is our old deck with the boards flipped over. The first deck cost us a thousand dollars (materials only of course, I'm not paying someone else to drive screws when I can do it) and the new one cost nothing for the frame and deck.

The budo equivalent to living like a student is to BE a student, keep learning, keep your shoshin, your beginner's mind and budo will never become a chore. Live like you've got no money, teach like you're only a couple weeks ahead of your students and you'll keep accumulating that excess capital.

Figure out how the rich people get their money

If you want to be rich, do what the rich folks do. The 1% don't make stuff, they are in the stock market. I have been in the market technically since I was 18 when I bought an annuity from my uncle who was selling insurance at the time. He backdated the policy so I could catch up to the maximum allowed, so I guess I have been doing what rich folks do forever (get so close to the rules they are in danger of bending). My kids will one day reap the benefit of my life-long investing mania. I have property (the house and cottage and a bit of land beside the cottage) and enough investment income to buy coffee every morning without worrying about how much I'm spending on it.

You know, since I was a student that's been my definition of success, to be able to buy morning coffee without checking my wallet first, without feeling like I should be making it myself at home. I suspect being that easily satisfied has helped get me to the situation I'm at now, where I'm a rich man by my definition. (Rich is when you have more money than you need. Rich or poor depends on what you figure you need.)

What's your budo market? How do you invest in your art so that it returns to you later? Your students of course, don't spend students, invest in them. If you figure your students are to be exploited for fees or work or to kowtow to you and make your ego swell, they will be gone when you need them. On the other hand, if you teach them, support them, invest in them, you won't be able to get rid of them when you're older and need some help. Your students may find you an irritating old man but they will be there to install a new floor in your dojo when you're too creaky to do it yourself. Your capital is your students, don't waste it.

Never touch the principle.

While you kids may complain about us boomers and how we're in your way, we complained about the generation before us. Those guys were the depression kids, the war kids who knew about making do with little. Those guys were champion scrimpers and savers and they taught us the same. They also left a bit to us as an inheritance. The boomers are a big population bulge but we come from a smaller family size (which now that I think about it, is strange) which means that we may have inherited a couple of times. I got from my grandmother and my parents and when I did, as a student, my firm commitment was that the money was not mine. I would not touch the principle, the money I got by the sweat of my ancestors would go to my kids. At that time I had no kids, but who knows what the future will hold and now there's two of them kicking around somewhere. They'll get what I got and trust me, when you guys get from us boomers you'll not be cursing us. Unless of course you haven't voted and you've allowed the governments to evicerate the pension plans so that we had to use up all our money before we get a chance to give it to you.

The interest from my inherited principle? Now that's another story and I figure what I make on the money I inherited is mine to do with as I wish. It may or may not be there for the kids, it depends largely on how long I live I suppose, and that pesky pension income that some folks figure I don't deserve because they don't have one. Seriously folks, pensions are deferred income, they're investments, money that was earned. If company pensions were not there the wages would have been much greater, the pensions you figure folks don't deserve now are wages you're trying to grab. Don't complain about our pension plans, go establish your own!

My budo kids are going to get what I got from my teachers, unchanged, just as I was given it. I teach because I was taught, for no other reason than that. I won't spend the principle, I'll turn it over as I got it. Beyond that, my students may also be getting a bit of interest as they get what I've added, but I try to make sure they know what's mine and what's a legacy.

Another way of not spending the budo principle is not to squander the students. I actively discourage my students from getting involved in "the politics" too early because I don't want them burned out on that stuff. Sure someone has to do administrivia and if that's done well and in good faith, we're fine. If I'm sending a student into a situation where they will work their asses off to be over-ruled and stomped on by someone who figures heirarchy trumps knowledge and effort, I'm going to be a bit angry because that way lies students who find something else to do, some place else where their talents are appreciated. Let the old folks do the work themselves if they want to re-do it and micromanage everything.

What? You don't figure that stuff happens in a budo organization? You figure it only happens in your workplace? People is people folks. You can spend people as fast as you can spend the money you got from your grand-uncle.

Another way to think about preserving the principle is to consider inheriting the dojo. Your sensei may retire, or split a dojo so that you will take over some of his students. You ought to consider that your baseline, never pass along less than you were given to start.

You can't spend what you don't see

Best investment advice I can give you is to have your paycheque direct deposited in your account, and to have that money withdrawn automatically into some sort of investment vehicle. If you qualify for pension, max it out. If you can do a tax free investment, max it out. Trust me, if you live like a student and do your own work you won't miss a massive amount of your income which never appears in your pocket. Don't get used to spending it and you won't miss it. Stay poor in cash, get rich in investment.

The budo equivalent is to do the same with your practice. As a university student I had a schedule that was all over the map, my week started early or late, labs took up random chunks of afternoon or morning. In that situation it is very easy to let stuff slide, to miss classes because you don't know what day it is and there's always time later to catch up... except you never do. For my undergrad and grad work I used my martial arts classes as an anchor, a not-to-be-varied set of times in the week that I was at a certain place for a certain amount of time. I arranged my school schedule to fit around those aikido and TKD classes and it worked. I knew where I was each day, I kept track of Tuesdays and the Wednesdays took care of themselves. Along the way those time-anchors were growing me some knowledge of the budo.
I didn't miss the time spent on budo classes because I never had that time to begin with. It was outside my school time, and I never missed that time I "didn't have". Ever heard the expression "if you want something done give it to a busy man"? The problem usually isn't lack of time, it's inertia.

The Rule of 72.

Compound interest folks. If you can get 10% interest on an investment it will double in 7.2 years. 1% takes 72 years. Make sure you are maxing out what you make on your money but wow, make sure that you know what that 19% credit card interest is costing you!

Don't ask too much from your students, that's the credit card debt, keep it low. Give your students as much as they can take, as fast as you can, that's the investment income. I've found you never get a big return for low interest. If you feed your students slowly in an effort to get them to learn better, they just learn slower. Low interest is low return. Your mileage may vary but fuel efficient cars tend to cost you less than gas guzzling monster SUVs that may have the power you need only once a year. Better to rent for that two day vacation with the monster trailer. Ah, I think I just pushed that metaphore over the cliff. More instruction means faster learning.

Use Other People's Money.

Use it wisely. If you HAVE to use a credit card keep an eye on the balance. If you can't pay it off before that 21% interest kicks in, see about a line of credit at 4% and use that to pay the card off. One will cost you much less than the other.

Similarly, pick and choose the students you ask to do things. Some will be more efficient than others. A student who knows how to install floors will be less resentful of helping with the floor than one who hates manual labour. On the other hand, finding a student who wants to learn how to install floors is like getting a 0.5% loan. Bonus!

Be Afraid Of Debt

If there's one thing that will suck money out of your pocket too fast to stop it going, it's debt. NO debt is good debt, and that includes your house which will return the money you put into it but historically, will not make you money. Only in an "overheated housing market" do you make money flipping houses. Most of the time you live in it, and 20 years from when you bought it you will usually get the same amount of purchasing power back from it.

Sure you paid $70,000 20 years ago and sure it's worth $200,000 now, but work it out in inflation adjusted dollars and in the interest you paid on that mortgage loan. Better to have put that money in the market where you took advantage of all those investors who buy high and sell low.

What's your debt in the martial arts world? It's your actions as put against your reputation. The budo world runs more on reputation than on money, more on personal relationships than on rank. It's who you know, it really is. You can't invent a reputation, you can only earn one over the years, so don't pull bonehead moves and burn bridges and be a jerk about throwing your rank around. All that is debt. If you have to step on toes, do it at the minimum debt interest, do it carefully and with sensitivity to other people's feelings. Don't do it with the fine print and hidden charges like a credit card or phone company. What's your opinion of your cell provider? Yep, that's what I'm talking about.

Best act of love my Grandmother ever gave me (OK we're Canadian, not big on the emotional displays) was to put into her will that she'd like me to pay off my student loans with the money she left me. I did, and since loan rates back then were over 20%... That's 3.5 years to double folks, if you were paying attention above there... I appreciated the advice and certainly followed it.

So I'm here in Calgary teaching a seminar and about to join another one where I will learn some more. I have the time to come for the 12 days because I followed the financial advice I just passed along. I really don't like traveling but I came because the folks out here treat me well, they invest in me, and I appreciate them. I'm also paying forward from my own instructors who invested their time in me, and I'm investing my time in the folks out here so that the art continues along. The guys here used "other people's money" and received some funding from the Canadian Kendo Federtion development fund, thanks CKF, and that fund from the CKF has and will help grow iaido in Alberta which means more membership for the CKF and thus more income to help spread the art and the organization to places like Antigonish NS where the founder of the Calgary club has moved, leaving his students here to carry on. Because the CKF helps here in Calgary, we also drive to Edmonton and back during these seminars where another CKF club has started practicing iaido. Three clubs on one grant, not a bad investment at all.

All this works through the currency of reputation and personal relationships. Very, very little of it works on rank. Even less of it works on money but there is an economics of budo if you look for it.

Aug 12, 2014

Nothing to say

Just recovering with a large dark roast at my local cafe in Calgary (a Starbucks, I'm in the suburbs) taking an inventory of all my aches and pains. My forearms took a beating this weekend after three days of practice (always feels like four since we drive from Calgary to Edmonton for a class and then back to Calgary for an evening class on Sundays) because I was swinging my iaito for most of it. Jodo was a relief on Saturday afternoon.

During class I kept wondering whether I'd said before what I was saying. It sure sounded familiar to me, and I wondered if it was time to just pack it in. After all, pretty much all I have to say has been written down in my books and said in my videos hasn't it?

Well perhaps not. What's there is a few years old, oops, close to 20 in the case of the basic manuals of my koryu iaido now that I think about it. I might have a bit more to say since then. (Said it in the new manuals out this year... ba dump bump) But surely I'm just repeating the same stuff for new people, like some old prof in front of the blackboard doing the intro chemistry class for the umpteenth time, even the jokes can be dated to 20 years ago.

That's not what teaching is about is it? I teach because I learn when I do. Someone asks a question and a whole set of new associations may click together in my head. This is especially true if I'm teaching koryu, but even with the standardized set of iai or jo (kendo federation) I find new ideas forming on their origin and meaning.

For instance, we were discussing the various sword etiquettes of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu as compared to the many used in Muso Shinden Ryu and then compared those to the etiquette of Seitei Gata when I realized that no instructor I've listened to for the last couple decades has even mentioned that Seitei comes from the koryu and so a brand new explanation of the different opening and closing sword bow has shown up beyond "the opening is MSR and the closing is MJER". Hadn't thought about that before.

Nothing to say? Several times this weekend I actually cursed myself because I was nattering on about some obscure historical point or other rather than watching the class swing their swords. I talked so much the back of my tongue got tender where I bit it last week.

Form vs Function

I got onto my form vs function hobbyhorse at one time over the weekend. Too many people figure iaido is all about hitting the grading points and doing it "the right way" which really means doing it the way I do it (for teachers) and doing it the way I was taught (for students). There is more than one right way, and there's a hell of a lot more than what's written in "the book" when we're talking about kendo federation iai and jo. The only way to truly understand these arts is from a functional point of view. Does it work? Did you live or die after that kata? When you are in this or that checkpoint position are you stable? Can you generate power? Can your opponent blow through your posture? Or are you just posing for the judges? A lot of my students fail exams for fairly low rank because I'm teaching them things other than what the judges want to see. I teach adults and they can take the failure, eventually they pass and some go on to the higher ranks and become well rounded judges because they've been exposed to more than one "right way" to do something. They even find their own "right way" to do things and often teach me something new.

There are too many things outside what is written in the book to figure that even seitei gata has one "right way" to do it. Those who have gone through judging seminars will know that what we look at for lower grades is not what we're looking for at higher grades. What is "correct" is correct for the level of experience, not what any individual judge had been taught as correct by their teacher. Judges have to understand the range, not the point and that range slides up a scale with different grade levels.

So can I, or should I teach the passing points to each rank? If I had three dozen students I might do that, have different classes for different ranks, but I don't. I've got three or four students of varying experience and rank and I don't have infinite time with them. I teach from function, as I was taught, not from form. I still say "this is the finish point of the cut" but I care about how the sword got there more than being there at the finish. Makes for difficult judging because the lack of concentration on the grading point is usually combined with a decent movement to get there.

Saving it for the next generation

Speaking of my books and videos, we had a discussion about having a record of what our sensei did. Take video of your sensei while they are alive, they won't live forever. You don't need to have perfect performances, or ideal lighting, you just need a reminder of "how he did it". You figure you know? That you will never forget or get confused by other teachers, other ways of doing your kata? You're a better man than I. We were talking mostly Okuden here, the top level of the koryu, something that teachers don't teach often, that students don't practice much.

At least take notes. You won't regret it later, even if you have something else to do or somewhere else to be, don't waste the time you just spent in class by forgetting what you just learned.

Leave it outside

Consider that while you are in class you can't do anything for the mortguage, your bad relationship, the expensive car repairs or the weather. You are stuck where you are for an hour or two and you've got someone who is trying to distract you standing up front. Allow yourself to be distracted, concentrate on what you're being taught and let those obsessive cycles of thought be broken for a short time. You may even be able to just "leave it at the door" given enough practice and eventually you might be able to "leave it at the door" whenever you need to.

Just sayin'.

And that is my seminar report for the Calgary Iaido and Jodo Seminar of August 8-10, 2014.

Aug 10, 2014

Alberta Again

Tonight I start 9 days worth of seminar in Calgary. (And not a grading in sight) I'm looking forward to practicing this weekend with a very hard-working bunch of enthusiasts, and to being a student again as we do a second weekend with Colin Watkin sensei who will be teaching Kage Ryu and Niten Ichiryu.

Having just come off of a manic construction binge where I built a sauna from the roof panels of an old sunroom, started a deck from the remnants of an old deck, installed two floors over the long weekend, and mostly finished the deck I'm looking for a restful 30 hours of swinging swords.

Ah retirement. When I get back I'll likely be straight into the shop catching up on orders.

If you're in Calgary, we're doing a full day of iaido and jodo tomorrow (Saturday) and it's not too late to drop in on the class. Get in touch with the Ka Muso Kai folks http://www.calgaryiaidoclub.net/ and I'll see you in class.

If you're in Edmonton, we'll be there Sunday morning (after driving up starting at 5:30am) for an iaido seminar and I'm sure the Edmonton Kendo Club would be happy to have new visitors. Contact http://eknc.org/ and I'll see you there.

Back to Calgary for the evening and a few classes through the week and then the main event, with Watkin sensei starting next Friday evening (Aug 15-17). Honestly, if you're interested in koryu and you're within striking distance of Calgary, you ought to get out for this one. There is room and I think a couple of extra saya bokuto... if not we'll trade around. I'm not talking bring your own for this one by the way, these are 5 feet long and you've got to draw them iaido style. This is the second time I'll be practicing this art and this time I intend to take notes because we just really really need another sword art back in Guelph.

We may even get my lovely daughter Lauren to swing those giants around after she joins us fresh from her tour with the National Youth Orchestra finishes in Vancouver this weekend. I suspect she'll be happy to do something other than play her viola for a while, I'm going to tell her it will be good cross-training.

Aug 8, 2014

I hate gradings

I really do. Tournaments too. I can see the value of gradings, they give confirmation of progress to students who are too young to be objective about their own skills, and they give a chance for fellow instructors to check where their peers are at. But this ranking of people into upper and lower, winner and loser is not particularly useful.

It's a martial art. The only real outcome of a true contest is the death or injury of one... no strike that, the death of the loser. Duels to first blood or whatnot are still just sport, winner being the one who is best prepared or fastest or doesn't slip on a cow paddy. In a real fight you keep going even if injured so only death is the result of the contest.

Am I serious about that? Well yes. budo is about facing death, your inevitable, unavoidable non-existance in the world. Anything less is a game and games are fun for some but a distraction from the work for most. Tournaments are set up to rules and the winners play to the rules. Look at MMA I know you're thinking about it right now. The winners are those who play to the rules and the rules have changed over the years to suit a television audience and maximize profits. Same for boxing, wrestling and what have you. Boxers no longer "toe the line" and punch until someone falls down or steps back, they no longer fight bare knuckle... you get the drift. Those who win train to the rules, not to the art.

Martial arts, as in winning a fight, is anti-rules. You fight to kill and eat the prey, you fight to keep your patch of land to grow your food, and you win more efficiently if you can get the other guy to accept a bunch of rules and you don't follow them. Even the massive military might of the "first world" resorts to rule breaking, always has. Who in their right mind gets shocked when their military misbehaves? Even "nice" Canada has resorted to dirty tricks when it goes to war, from before the time it was a country. (Brock, Hull, Detroit, psychological warfare, betrayal of allies... )

Budo is the acknowledgement of the lack of rules, the study of dirty tricks and the witholding of the same in the name of higher ideals of humanity. We are not dogs in a pack seeking to establish a heirarchy of dominance... at least that's what makes us human and not a pack of dogs. DNA doesn't explain our success, our ability to rise above pack politics does. But politics exists you say? Sure, and we fight it every day in order to cooperate. It swings back and forth, today it's swinging toward "us and them" in North America, with a polarized, contest oriented "win by any means" political process. Gerrymandering electoral districts, restrictive voting rules, misleading robocalls, all part of the idea that politics is a game. It will swing back, I hope it will, back to a time when civic duty will mean those who have experience at real life go into politics instead of the kids who spend their whole lives "in politics" from their Poly-sci degrees through working for a party to getting elected and retiring all without ever holding a job except the job of getting elected.

Too bad we've never found a way to prevent those who want to be in charge from being in charge, but at least we've thought about it since Plato. Keep in mind that those who want to lead are the least desirable as leaders but don't make it a rule... you'll simply get a contest to see who is the best at denying they want to lead.

Back to specifics and away from all this deep theory. Gradings just get in the way. Gradings coming up? Better practice to the grading rules and make sure all the students are hitting the points. Tournaments... no they're not a problem except that I have to sit in a chair all day being all judgemental. My back twinges just thinking about it. Mostly I just ignore tournaments, but seminars with gradings attached? It isn't rare that I hear from folks who are at one of our major seminars say "it's so nice not to have to worry about grading and just train". Well why not just not grade?

So why do I have my grades? Because I was there at the start and thought we needed the grades, because students like to grade and someone needs to be sitting on the panel when they do. Because grading helps get folks into the system, grading gives students the confidence to go teach. Not everyone is the egotistical maniac I was and am, to teach with no qualifications except the permission of my instructor. Then again, I have always felt that I had to earn that position as a teacher, not having a grade made me work hard to make sure my students were getting it right. It wasn't until I got a high grade that I heard myself say "because I'm a 7dan and I say you do it that way". Sort of the budo equivalent of "the people elected me to govern so I'm going to pass this law". Yep, "because I can", always the first and last resort of the top dog.

I'm still running on "imposter syndrome" where I figure I'm not worthy of my position, but that's counterbalanced by "OK you show me you can do it better" syndrome. In the last dozen years or so that's switched from "beat me up" to "teach better than me" but hey, I'm allowed to change the rules aren't I?

I hate gradings and I'd happily give back my rank if asked. What comments I've had on my rank over the years was inevitably "you got your rank because..... " which always implies I don't deserve it. That was from the polite ones. The rude ones (the ones that figured they were beyond the need to be polite) just came out and said "you aren't an x-dan". (Fine, tell the guys that gave it to me, I didn't award it to myself... but hey, you can have it back any time... oh wait, you can't take it.) What comments I've had on my actual performance as a martial artists and an instructor were inevitably useful to me, comments on whether I deserve my rank... not so much. As my iai sensei said all those years ago when we were practicing without grades... "if someone wants to know your rank, go out on the floor and show them your rank".

I like that grading system so much better than the one with numbers on.

Aug 8, 2014


People confuse organizations with arts, but there is a good reason for that. Large growth is easiest with a good organization.

A budo doesn't need an organization, at least one beyond the dojo level. If there is a teacher and students, that's enough to carry on and even to grow the art. An organization, on the other hand, does things a dojo just can't. It spreads to other areas, it offers administration and advertising. In short, think franchise. A mom and pop corner store can thrive given the right location, service and selection of goods, but there's a reason why there are so many shichijuichi (7-11) stores around. It's got to do with bulk buying power, standardization and marketing.

If you're inclined to say now that a dojo can spawn more dojo and thus grow without an organization, what have you just created? More than one dojo means some sort of administration of the multiple dojo. It's now an organization, regardless of having a name or not.

A growing art tends to have a good organization behind it, or perhaps several of them. Look at your local karate school, it's likely part of some sort of chain, your local teacher got his grade from somewhere. Lots of karate organizations, some better at some things, some at others.

What are some of the things a good organization provides?

Gradings. This is first and foremost the function of an organization. A single dojo has little reason to create formal grades, everyone knows where they stand in the pecking order so why bother? When you get lots of dojo spread out you start needing a system to keep track of who is where. But more importantly for growth, students like grades. Students want grades and they want the chance to grade often. They may claim differently, they may complain about the cost, but they grade regardless. A frequent and challenging grading system means more students.

Standardization within parameters. There is a trade-off between growth and quality, think lots of dojo with marginal instructors. Even if those instructors collapse under their own incompetance the students will remain and will likely be picked up by other dojo in the organization. After all, the students want to retain their place in the grading system. This is also why organizations looking to poach students will offer an equivalent or even higher grade for those who jump. Forcing a start from zero is not a good way to pick up students from other places. What about quality you say? A challenge grade can be offered rather than an automatic rank transfer if quality is a concern. See what level the jumper is at and give it, specifics of the style can always be picked up before the next grading.

The opposite to a group that gives too much away for growth is a group that never feels a student is good enough to go start a dojo. In that case the organization will be restricted to a very few dojo which will hold few students (even if each dojo is filled to maximum capacity, few dojo mean limited numbers students).

Advertising, support and training. Just like a franchised business will use its income from the members to advertise, so can budo organizations. The group's existance in different areas and the cross-recognition of grades over many dojo is an incentive to new students and should never be underestimated. Organizations ought to be putting this out there.

Support for new dojo should be given by the organization, especially to areas where there is no representation. Something as simple as a few club weapons, some old mats or a couple months rent on a dojo space can help get a new area into the fold.

Training of students and instructors is critical to the growth of an organization and thus an art. Students love seeing senior instructors who come and tell them the same thing their sensei tells them. It gives them confidence in their teacher and it provides a boost to their training. A couple days of concentrated practice does more than months of dragging your butt out to an hour of class a week. Good organizations make sure they have senior instructors moving around their territory all the time, and when they do, standardization improves.

This implies an organization wants to expand of course, and the way to collapse it is easy. No support, no gradings and soon there will be no members. Who would bother paying for a membership in an organization that does nothing for you? The key is always the training with your own sensei and you can do that inside or outside of an organization because the two are separate.

Even if people often confuse the organization for the art.

Aug 6, 2014

Judging Scorecards

I was just asked about Iaido judging scorecards, what they look like, how they are used, pass-fail, out of ten. So here is the situation as we do it in the CKF and as I approach judging.

First, if it's kyu gradings, only 1kyu has any sort of assessment from the CKF. Grades of 2kyu and below are considered club grades and while we encourage clubs to do them, they are not required. It's nice to see students come to an ikkyu grading with some experience in front of judges, it gets rid of a lot of the nerves.

Shodan is the first grade where we require a minimal time period and we give five free choice kata to assess. (I might be wrong on some of our specifics, you can check out the exact Canadian requirements at kendo-canada.com). So shodan has a somewhat minimal set of requirements and therefore ikkyu must be even less than that. To give students a hint on how to pass ikkyu, make sure your uniform and etiquette is up to snuff, and that you can convince us which kata you picked.

How can I not know our rules? I am not required to as a judge and I don't care as an instructor. As a judge I only need to know what grade is being challenged and the required kata, I don't need any more than that to do my job. As an instructor I figure it's part of the test that you know you've got the time in to do the next test, and what's on it.

What's a judge to judge? From my judging seminars I can tell you that up to 3dan we are asked to look for reasons to pass the students. At 3dan the students are expected to know all 12 kata to the correct standards as set out in the book (yes "THE BOOK" about which some folks have stated "hey, there's not all that much in the book but we don't do it the way they do it in... "

Yes you do...

So, at 4 and 5dan you are working on the technical aspects of the kata that you know well from when you passed your 3dan. That means we are looking at the kata more closely. Five dan is the end of the technical journey, from 6 on up we look at other things as well as the technical which should continue to improve.

I said that we were asked to look for reasons to pass up to 3dan, does it switch to looking for reasons to fail at some point? Not that I've ever heard it stated in a judging seminar but lots of stuff isn't said. I have my personal view on this, and I look for reasons to pass people no matter what grade they are challenging. That doesn't mean I ignore fail points, but I am always, always upset when anyone forces me to fail them.

So a more or less three part set of things that judges are supposed to look at. I will tell you now that while I listen at judging panels, I really can't see judging to a formula, and the intent is not that you do. What works for me is having sat on grading panels for 20 years and I doubt there's a judge out there that doesn't rely more on their experience as a judge than on a set of checkpoints and a theory of judging. A judge that worries about someone who limps or has to modify the way they sit in tate hiza is a judge who hasn't been around for very long.

It would be a boring old world if everyone was the same.

When does it start?

Students often hear that the grading assessment begins when they walk in the room. Sure, but I'm not that good, by the time I've seen the 60th set of the same 5 kata I'm having trouble counting to five so my noting of behaviour in those not actually grading is confined to looking up to see who has started the fight in the corner. In other words, "the nail that sticks up".

Keep your head down and if you pick your nose absent-mindedly I'm not likely to put that on a scorecard. Flick it at someone on the grading floor and it might be another story.

While we're on pre-grading, the nametags are covered or removed during gradings for a reason. I do not know who your teacher is, I do not know what you've done before and I don't care if you have a medical condition which is perfectly obvious, like an inability to kneel down. I assume that you aren't kneeling down because you can't. Now, if you have had a stroke and have trouble with your hand position and you fumble a grip I may just remember who you are at that moment and "not see it". But generally, you will pass or fail on how you perform your grading kata at that day and time. I don't care who your teacher is, how much beer you poured down my throat the evening before or how much money you owe me, you pass or fail at the grading, not before.

How about the mechanics of judging? We have a CKF sheet that includes space for notes on etiquette and uniform and each kata. How each judge uses this is entirely up to them. At the side we have a pass/fail column which each judge fills in, along with their name at the top. For myself, I generally don't start writing down points until about 4dan, up to then I won't have much to say. At 4dan and over it's going to be pretty cryptic because I can either watch the grading or write, I can't do both. I don't put scores on each kata, or note parts that are pass or fail. As you'll see below there's no reason to do it, I'm required to give pass or fail, my abilities as a judge are tested elsewhere, in judging seminars and informally all the time I'm around my seniors. I won't have my grading sheet in hand to not give feedback later either. (Wait for it).

The judging sheets are collected by the secretary, tallied and only the identification numbers of those who pass are released to the public. There is no discussion of results, and the judging sheets along with the record of numbers of pass/fail go to the chief examiner. Only the chief examiner should know who passed who, and this is strictly as a quality check on judges. A judge who is wildly off from the rest of the judges, or who seems to be showing a bias toward or against a particular dojo for instance, will be spoken to by the chief examiner. Beyond that, all anyone needs to know is who passed. The administration needs to know who failed so they can refund their money.

In case you missed it, there is NO discussion of results at all. In the case of the CKF jodo section (I'm the chief examiner) this is a strict rule. I am not interested in a discussion and the official word is that it doesn't happen. Am I naive? Of course not, but when discussions happen in either iaido or jodo I want them short, sharp and restricted to a fast decision from the head judge. Reasons why, discussions of theory or what have you, should happen later over beer.

The official word on how a grading is run includes keeping the judges completely away from the students on the day of the grading, they are informed by the chief usher as to how the grading will happen, they sit, they judge and they leave. Judges will not say "good luck" to students, they will not coach them, they will not even slap them on the shoulder. All this can be taken as showing favouritism and asking for votes from the other judges.

Does it happen this way? No of course not, but if Canada ever gets huge numbers of students, and those students ever start taking all this too (in my opinion) seriously, we'll go to that system out of necessity. Same goes for requiring a doctor's note for medical problems. At the moment this is completely unnecessary but if people start to "cheat" I'll maybe change my mind. Actually if our students ever make it necessary to do this sort of stuff I'll be retiring, grading will have become the goal and rules something to push or even to break just to pass. Not my budo.

So, if there is no discussion of results, and the panel is supposed to go away after it's done, what about feedback to the students?

Feedback? What other feedback can there be than you passed or you failed. You are at the minimum requirements or you are not.

Specific things to work on according to this judge? "Go practice more". Seriously, I've never run across a failed grading that wasn't a result of a lack of practice. If the entire dojo full of students are doing the same mistake they'll usually pass and the panel will have a little chat with their sensei. Did I mention that most of the other judges have also been doing this for 20 years? We don't punish students for a teacher's mistake if we can avoid it.

Advice on how to answer a student who asks for feedback after a grading? "Go ask your sensei". And I like that one too.

Look, I understand that all moments are teaching moments but you don't give advice when it won't be heard. You just failed some fellow for his 5dan test. He asks "for feedback" which means "tell me why I failed". I say "your hand was too high on your first nuki tsuke" which might even be true. He hears "I failed you for an inch".

Well, yes I may have at 5dan but seriously, I will be able to find a lot more than that to bitch about if you really want me to go into it. You failed because you did something completely obvious to you, like missing a kata, or you failed for a generalized unreaching of the bar. You need more practice, and if I say "you need more practice" you're going to tell me you practiced every day for four hours for the last year. At which time I'm going to... what, change my vote?

You failed, go practice more. Don't ask me for feedback, come see me in a week and ask me to teach you. I'll remember what you need to work on.

Arrogant? Sure I'm a judge, that means I judge, I'm judgemental, I got reasons and I'll tell them to you, just not the day I fail you. Remember that I'm pissed off that I had to fail you, I might just give you an earful, especially if you're challenging a high rank.

So what happens if a kyu comes up and asks for feedback? I give it, of course I do. But feedback is not part of the panels I'm usually sitting.
So that's some stuff on the mechanics of judging. Read my past writings to get more on the topic, I seem to write about it a lot.

Aug 3, 2014

The Judder

Part Jarring experience, part shudder, I just had a judder moment while reading a history of photography that put Bequerrel's discovery of the photovoltaic effect in 1839 beside the discoveries of the chemical image by Niepce, Deguerre and Fox Talbot at about the same time.

The photovoltaic effect led to the digital imaging most of us use today. The chemical imaging of Niepce, Deguerre and Fox Talbot are now far from the mainstream, as is the flexible roll emultion of Eastman that I used when I started photography. Yet histories of photography, largely due to their time of writing and the lazy habit of writers to write what has been written, have given pride of place to the chemical proocess.

Hence the judder as I realized I had just read something I should have known, that was completely obvious, but that I had not thought about before.

The world of chemistry has gone from the mainstream, but it has not disappeared. It has gone into that strange twilight of the hobbyist. Now you might think that all photographs are taken by hobbyists except for a shrinking few pros, but that's not true. Photography has not been a hobby for 50 years, it is a part of our daily lives, a way of communicating with others and with the past just like letters, emails and faceplant posts. Mainstream photography, by the way, is not, as we "serious photographers" might believe, the digital SLR or even the point and shoot camera, but the smart phone. The old addage of the best camera being the one you have in your hand has become shockingly real and I suspect more photos are taken per minute with a portable phone today than were taken in a year when I first picked up my mother's box brownie in the 1960s.

The workhorse image is digital and it has a very particular look, as all workhorse images have always had. Keep the sun over your shoulder, everyone smile and today, turn put that plate of food until the steak is at the upper right hand third. The modern hobbiest turns to the 35mm film as the "giant" image surface of today, with it's depth of field that is less than infinite. Never mind that 35mm was the smart phone camera of it's day, and the last generation medium format cameras were the "real" cameras, just as the 8x10 view camera was the "real" when the speed grafix came around, and the wet collodian process was "real" when dry film showed up.

Hobbyists are conservatives, what was good enough for Dad is good enough for them. It's easier to do what you know, surely, Game of Throwns is being written on a DOS operating system running WordStar (I wrote my first 5 sword manuals on that system). Well, yes to a certain extent, if photography is a tool, you use a tool that gets out of the way. I can still bring up an all manual Pentax Spotmatic and shoot an image faster than I can with my all-automatic digital cameras. Fewer bells and whistles, fewer arrangements of buttons and menus, no damned on button except for the light meter.

Each new iteration of a technology is new... a tautology but we forget it. The old technology will always do things differently than the new, the DOS/WordStar system does not interrupt with email, the Pentax Spotmatic does one thing really, really well, especially with that f1.4 50mm lens... I still dream about that perfect depth of field. We play with our pixels and try to get the old look but the fisheye setting on my current favourite, the G15, is a joke. Literally, it's just stupid looking. I much prefer the Polaroid lens on the adapter barrel. Nothing beats that blue fringe around the edges you get with cheap glass.

Hobbyists like the hands-on of the older technology, they like the fussiness, the simplicity and the effects they can achieve. The mainstream just wants to be efficient and take that shot of the kids before they grow up and go to college. Don't get me started on the gadgeteers with their pixel-peeping, we had to endure them in my day, with their grain-reducing developers and their automatic agitators.

By the way, how much of this is budo? The mainstream is a drone with a missile, the hobbyist swings his sword and the gadgeteer worries about the lineage documents from a hundred years ago.

But never mind all that, I'm just finishing my (cold) coffee before heading upstairs to bang down the rest of the dojo floor (which ought to wake up the helpers) and enjoying that judder of a new viewpoint that brings up all sorts of other connections. That ought to get me through to at least noon.

Aug 2, 2014

Profit Margins

I just bought a piece of wood full of cracks that is 4 inches by 6 inches by 4 feet long and it cost me a thousand dollars. It also weighs 75 pounds. It is a 40 or 50 year old chunk of lignum vitae, a wood that has long been on the vanishing side, but is highly desired by the martial arts types. I hope to get enough weapons out of it to make the money back and I will really count myself lucky if I make any sort of profit.

So why bother with it? Because it is such a desired wood and I love making the day of someone who has an appreciation for that sort of thing. I also say in my quietest voice "I'm going to keep one for myself". I rarely do, someone always finds out I've got that last piece of bog oak or that last brazilian rosewood tanto and gives me the puppy eyes.

Wood of all types is getting more expensive, I worked a lot with Ipe for the last ten years, it's a nice wood and was quite reasonable in cost. Now it isn't. I just bought some 4x4 for some tanren bo and almost fainted at the price rise. It's now in the "medium expensive" range and may just keep going up.

Looking at some tulipwood, we picked through a bin of small pieces and came up with nothing at all. Tulipwood, Kingwood, Cocobolo and Brazillian and Honduran rosewoods are all the same family and all pretty much gone.

Anyone want african ebony? I know where there is a piece about two inches thick, 8 wide and maybe 43 inches long that you can have for $900.

So you'd think that I would be happy to get to the lumberyard and buy wood for a deck wouldn't you? Priced a piece of cedar lately? It's too expensive for me to build with, I used a couple boards for the benches in the new sauna, but the rest of it is from construction spruce.... the stuff you buy, nail down and hope doesn't twist so much it tilts your deck. The major part of the sauna is the roof panels of a sunroom I ripped down a couple of years ago. Recycle and repurpose. The laminated fir beams that I've carefully saved from the same sunroom have just found a new home with an old student so it looks like my backyard dojo will have to be redesigned in my head.

The new deck is going to be the old deck which I ripped apart and saved. Flip the boards over and I might get another ten years out of them.

So what's the point? I guess I'm just lamenting once more that you really don't get what you pay for, you pay what you're willing to pay. Things are always worth what someone is willing to pay for them, not what they actually cost.

You also don't buy the thing, you buy what that thing represents. A lignum vitae bokuto isn't inherently better than one made from hickory, but it's a damned sight more classy so you're buying some class (I hope you're buying it for some thing). A deck from construction studs is probably going to wear better than one from cedar but cedar is what you make decks out of.

And I always feel better using a bokuto from a beautiful wood, even if it makes no real sense. Same as I like practicing something I've been taught over something I've made up. The story does make a difference.

Aug 1, 2014

Money is Time

One of my favourite and most reliable methods of thought is to turn statements around and see what they look like from the other side. In this case I was thinking about some friends who used the cabin over the weekend. They would like to use it again and asked if they could rent it. I thought about it today and decided I'd rather have folks who use the place do some work instead of hand me money. Money doesn't help me keep the place up, some elbow grease does. A couple of hours stacking firewood, sweeping floors, trimming the driveway or painting ceilings is a lot more valuable to me than a few dollars in the bank.

I have no time. It's as simple as that, I can build a house, from laying the foundation blocks to roofing it, and I've done all that, as well as make the furniture, but I hired a crew to put the second floor on my place because doing it myself would have taken ten years. I used my money to buy time, and it was money well spent. I am a happier person for having the extra space in the house. I've also got Ikea shelving beside cabinets I've built myself, I make the call at the time of need and usually the flat-pack wins out over shutting down the bokuto production, cleaning up the shop bench and firing up the saws.

"Time is money" is how the saying usually goes, and that's true, I trade my time for money when I manufacture the wooden weapons I sell to make a living. But since I work for myself my time in production and sales and whatnot is initialized at zero. What time it takes me to talk on the phone or drive to a seminar with a vanload of stuff, or any of the other things I do, including the writing that goes along with the job are worth exactly nothing until I sell a bokuto to someone. Of course I'm trading time for money, but the important thing to rememer is that I'm making that money to buy time. Someone else's time, the guys who make and sell shoes, grow food and all the other things that I won't have time to do myself.

But most importantly, money can buy me the time to do things I want or need to do. Teaching budo costs me time and I have to buy that time with the money I make elsewhere so that I can pay the electricity bill and the gas bill. I could heat with wood I cut myself, and I know how to make candles but who's got the time? The more spent there, the less in the dojo.

So I teach "for free" and my penniless students appreciate it I hope, but they certainly also spend some of their time helping me work on the house and the cottage. This weekend is going to be spent banging a floor down at Tombo Dojo (the cottage) and with the help of one of them I might just get it done.

Think though, what each formation of that saying implies. "Time is money" means not to waste time doing things that don't make you money. Get to work earning that money.

The other way around is the way I prefer. "Money is time" means that if you've got some money you can buy yourself some time. The object is to have enough money to buy the time that makes you happy.

Think you know that? How many of you have paid your dojo fees for the month? How many classes could you go to? How many have you? If you truly believed that time is money, that the accumulation of money is the object of living (who dies with the most wins) then you would get your money's worth from your dojo membership and go to every class. That was your object in spending that money wasn't it? If you spend the money you'll go right?

But you don't, any more than you go to the gym every chance you get after buying a year's membership. You think that time is money but you are acting as if money is time. Your time doing whatever it is that you're doing instead of being at the gym is more important to you. You're wasting money, maybe you're wasting time too?

Look at the equation once again, time is equated to money or money is equated to time. Money is infinite, time is not. The CEO of your local company might be getting 20 or 100 times your salary rate, but his time on this earth isn't measurably different than yours. He has managed to convince someone that his time is worth a lot more than yours but he doesn't get more of it. The true measure of a man is how he uses his time, not how much money he has. Once his time is gone, his money is too. You can't buy more of your own time, not a meaningful amount at least, although you can buy better health care if you're careful. You can, on the other hand, buy other people's time.

Rich people pay more for stuff, and up to a point their stuff lasts a bit longer but then it goes over the tipping point. Does a half million dollar car last longer than my old $6000 used Volvo beater? No, but my Volvo lasted longer than the $800 Mazda GLC that it replaced.

What I'm saying is that those who accumulate money, after buying all the "other people's time" they can, only accumulate money. The amount of money you have is potentially infinite and so meaningless because your time is limited.

Use it well.

July 31, 2014

Religion to Recreation

In two generations.

I am ambivalent about the shift in Yoga from religious practice to exercise fad. More so, I suspect, than if I had practiced the art and had used it as my meditation practice, but I have also looked on with amusement at Forsa and other "samurai exercise" practices, as well as "boxercise" and who knows how many other attempts to take the budo into the gym.

I do approve of defanging religions, of making them recreations as is being done even within the religions themselves. The megachurches around here remind me of nothing so much as attempts to make villages from cities. They seem more babysitting and movie night than fire and brimstone evangelists and as long as they don't go back to the sword (or machete as the case may be for modern missionaries) I'm fine with it. Something has to pick up from the Masons, Odd Fellows and Lions clubs, the charity must come from somewhere if it's to be cut from the governments.

On the other hand, hearing about yet another fun variation of Yoga, something to do with practicing on someone else's feet, I'm reminded of those 1930s "kendo on ice" videos you can find in the British Pathe archives with Imperial Army types skating around doing iaido and kendo in an arena. Not my sword practice.

Popularizing is, by definition, how one brings in students and my own club has benefitted over the years from the "ninja" movement, with kids joining to climb trees and migrating to the sword when they get tired of the mosquitos in the woods. Like I said, I'm of two minds about all this. I'm all for being super serious, strict and secret as long as someone else provides the advertising to get the new students flowing into the system. Without the fun stuff the serious students don't find the art at all.

That's why my policy of teaching anyone who shows up in front of me. I figure the student has done all the self-selection needed by the time they've found the class.

Still... I sort of miss the Yoga purists... they must still be out there in tiny rooms with no stretchy-tights, no hip hop music, no mash-ups with pilates or ballet. I'd certainly like to think so.

July 29, 2014

The Boss' Coffee

How much authority is attached to rank?

In the Kendo Federation we have a couple of different rank heirarchies, the Dan system which goes up to 10 dan but is only awarded up to 8dan because that's all Japan will award, and the shogo which has three levels, renshi, kyoshi and hanshi. These are somewhat linked to the dan system. While the dan system is recognized across the international kendo federation countries, shogo has been declared to have a local meaning. The difference is one of "will" and "may" which, if you're a union negotiator, you will recognize as significant. I have a renshi rank in iai, and I would likely be admitted to a renshi group at a seminar in Japan, but that would be a courtesy rather than a requirement.

In terms of dan rank having any sort of authority, it seems a rather interesting and cultural thing. Certainly there is no list of authoritative acts one can require from one's juniors, just as there is (usually) no such thing outlined in any organization or business. I would very much doubt that there are very many businesses out there that have "get coffee for the middle managers" in the job description of any secretary.


In the Kendo federation the various dan ranks do have some authority attached. At godan you can "teach" or "run a dojo" inasmuch as you can put students forward for gradings and sit on a grading panel (to a certain level). This is written into the KIF guidelines and is established in the various national organizations. You can sit on panels for higher rank as you obtain higher rank yourself, with 7dan being the "all-access" point in the guidelines.

To be specific, the guidelines state you can sit on a panel as follows: 4d = 1d (5 on panel), 5d = 3d (5 on panel), 6d = 4d (6 on panel) and 7d = 7d (6 on panel).

Again, these are guidelines and different countries will have different requirements. You would certainly not find a nanadan renshi sitting on a panel to grade nanadan in Japan. On the other hand, you'd have a hard time finding 6 hanshi to sit on such a panel in Canada.

So rank does confer a certain defined authority. Now would a 7dan get away with telling some other sensei's student to go get coffee for him in Canada? Perhaps in some cases, perhaps not in others.

Would a hanshi hachidan get away with sending a yondan for something in Japan? I suspect that every yondan in earshot would be falling all over himself to go get whatever it is, reasonable request or not.

Similarly, in a business I suspect you'd find secretaries who would run for coffee for the CEO, and you'll also find middle managers with the authority to hire and fire underlings... The question really is, and always is, "can I refuse this menial task without shooting myself in the foot?" To be legally correct and "set to one side" in the organization is a bitter victory.

What should one do if faced with this sort of demand? You have a choice whether or not to continue practicing with such a person, just as you will have a choice whether or not to continue working in a place where you are expected to do menial tasks for the manager above you. While I may not like such things, I worked for other people most of my life and have fetched the occasional coffee.

As for the authority attached to shogo, that's another story. The meaning of shogo in countries other than Japan is a bit harder to figure out and many countries don't bother with it. There are so few at 6dan and above that it's not too hard to figure the ranking system without the titles, everyone knows the pecking order so why bother. But in Japan the shogo seem to mean a whole lot more. A kyoshi hachidan is not in the same realms as a hanshi hachidan at all. I'm not sure those in the west have an appreciation of just how "high in the sky" the hanshi are who come visit us. It's the final step on the ladder, there isn't any place else to go in the system, one must then become an administrator, be on the sectional committee, to accumulate more influence I suppose.

For westerners the shogo are usually thought of as something you need to get into the higher group at seminars in Japan, as in "hey I need a kyoshi to go practice at this special seminar". This is how they are usually considered in Canada, as well as a way to donate some extra money to the federation in registration fees.

Excuse me while I go get myself another coffee.

July 28, 2014

Serious About Koryu?

Martial arts techniques are physical movements and are amenable to motion capture, video, books, diagrams, notes, dance notation, and just about anything else you can use to capture physical movement. It would not be hard to preserve the shape of any practice.

In a more complicated aspect, the martial arts are also lots of stuff beyond the simple physical movements, and that stuff isn't so easy to put into words, but then again, that stuff is largely self-learned through decades of practice so doesn't really need to be preserved outside the practice itself. The old men all end up saying pretty much the same things about the arts, and it isn't really "what they know" as "who they are" that's valuable in this aspect of things.

Then there's the cultural, religious, spiritual, historical stuff that differentiates and defines each art, and most of that can either be taught orally or put into books.

The question isn't really "can" we preserve the old dying arts by these methods, but "why" preserve them. If nobody is practicing them what's the point of the preservation of the shell? Sure arts get re-vived and re-created but ultimately it comes back to the teacher not what's taught, and there are still excellent people out there teaching arts that aren't in danger of extinction who can use those arts to teach you as easily as they can use some moldy old fossil.

So who cares right? What? You do I hear?

"How much?" I ask. If you really are willing to help preserve a small art on the edge of vanishing, an art that is essentially being offered by one single fellow willing to share it, you might want to consider going to Calgary on August 15 to 17 to study Kage Ryu with Colin Watkin. No not that Kage Ryu, the other one, the one that uses five foot long swords to draw and cut with. The last time I practiced I remember we got to throw shoto and ride a horse. Colin will also be teaching Niten Ichiryu which is a much more popular art, there are probably at least 200 people practicing that one world wide... maybe even 300.

Email Alex Cook for details of two weekends worth of practice (and you can visit Banff in the days between, it's close to Calgary) at alexander.c.cook@gmail.com


Maybe I'll see you there because I'm doing my bit, sacrificing to learn, probably going to visit the mountains and hang out with a great bunch of enthusiastic folk in Canada's most enthusiastic city... Yep, in real hardship for the arts.

July 27, 2014

Right Down to the Floor

I'm sitting in Amicis in Sauble Beach, a half hour or so from my cottage, rewarding myself with a nice dark roast and watching the world go by. I just spent a morning hand-bombing 900 square feet of red pine up to the second floor of the cottage, a log cabin affair with a second floor that is entirely open with 13 foot ceilings.

13 foot? I took a naginata and held it above my head and said... yep, need that height. Idiot. Heating a space like that with a wood stove is "problematic" to say the least.

Why red pine? Because that's what Namitome sensei has in his dojo in Fukuoka and I love that floor. It looks like a golf ball, fully dimpled. Now is his red pine the same as my red pine? I don't know and don't care, it's the same as his in my mind, and give me another 50 years to use it enough to dent it up and it will look like his.

The wood will sit there acclimating and doing the worst of its warping for a few days and next weekend I'll be back up to smack it down. For today I may just get some styrofoam and strapping and finish the walls.

It just occured to me that, after 20 years of indecision and waiting, I'm probably doing this so that I can justify starting on a dojo in my back yard. Got some beams from an old sunroom that are under a tarp waiting for the time. The ceiling panels from that same sunroom are now a very nice sauna which needs a bit of finishing up that was supposed to be done this weekend before the flooring got delivered to the driveway and caused this last minute trip north.

The life of a retired dude is complicated. Between cranking out product in the shop as fast as I can, building the sauna, a back deck, and working on the cottage I haven't been on my bicycle once this year, and have lifted weights exactly four times. Ominous that, I'll probably just get all this stuff finished and drop dead of a stroke. I missed a class Thursday to go see the kick-off concert for my daughter's tour with the National Youth Orchestra and thought at one point that having "the big one" at that moment would be OK.

Either that or right down on the new floor in the middle of a good practice.

Eh, should wait for 50 to see how the dimpling goes.

July 26, 2014

When the student is ready: The dojo will appear?

More thoughts on when dojo appear in and disappear from an organization. I'm not all that familiar with a dojo starting with a teacher who has no training at all and joining an organization, it might happen but it would be pretty rare in my experience. On the other hand, starting with some training outside an organization and then joining one when the chance occurs... that's what happened with our dojo. I got some iaido training from one sensei, was in the wind for a while, found another sensei a bit closer and joined his kendo organization when they set up an iaido section. Later they included a jodo section, again when we had obtained some prior instruction and had enough members to do it.

It can happen that people join different organizations, pull a dojo (or even several) out of one organization and start a new one, realign with another group... The world of Japanese sword arts isn't as static or as clear as one might think. The many "Codes of the Samurai" in the various prefectures were written more in hope than in reflection of what actually went on. Loyalty was honoured more in the breach than in the practice in some eras, so moving from one organization to another isn't anything new.

This happens both in the major over-sight organizations and in the koryu but I am not going to comment further on those because it ain't anyone's business but the ryu. Just as it really isn't anyone's business to comment on organizations they aren't part of as far as that goes, but in terms of how dojo get started, why not? Mostly these dojo leaving and joining involve the usual mundane difficulties with any organization... problems with the guys at the top. Since most of these organizations aren't actually franchises, there's really nothing stopping anyone from moving from place to place.

I've also seen individuals and dojo in more than one organization at a time. This may be due to multiple arts being practiced, or prior association, or simply being asked to join more than one group. If none of the groups have a problem with it, no trouble. Of course, if you're in more than one organization for a single martial art, one of the groups will usually have a problem, and then a choice has to be made.

In the ZenKenRen situation, there's a major consideration for the kendo guys... if you want to compete at the world championships, you are a member of the single organization per country or you don't get to play. This consideration doesn't hold the iaido and jodo guys as firmly since there are no world championships in either of those arts, and you may even get a dojo in the kendo federation as kendo, and in another organization for iaido or jodo. Kendo federation for kendo, naginata federation for naginata, maybe ZenKen and a koryu... For the most part that goes uncommented as long as the arts covered don't overlap.

There are examples of groups with a plan of active and positive expansion, and others with a more restrictive attitude to growth. The thing to remember in both cases is that all groups will find students who like what they do, they will expand or contract according to their nature, and in every single dojo in every single organization the students will gain skill in direct relationship to how good the teacher is in front of them, and how often they get their butts on the floor. The organizational structure won't make much, if any difference at all.

Which reminds me, I talked a bit about dojo leaving organizations for this or that reason. In too many cases I've seen this happen because sensei is mad about something the students aren't even aware of, at levels they shouldn't have to hear about. In all the histrionics the poor students may get the grubby end of the stick.

I've also seen situations where many senior sensei have shut up and "got over it" for the sake of the students and the organization. I prefer this approach myself.

July 25, 2014

How Do We Do It, How Do We Do It

Volume, Volume...

In the last couple of days I may have had a tone that suggested that it isn't a good thing to start your own club (as in "if you can't listen to your sensei and think you know more than he does, go teach and stop bothering him") but teaching on your own isn't really all that bad. Just teach what you know and admit what you don't.

I guess our dojo started in 1987 when I started teaching iai on the front lawn of the athletics department. Shortly after that we got them to let us into the building and we applied to the CKF to become a dojo. On filling out a form and payment of whatever it was back then we were accepted and official.

Not too difficult really. Today it's the same thing, you apply, you get accepted or not. If you don't have a 5dan or higher running your club you are under a 5dan from somewhere else until you get one of your own.

That's how the dojo started. As for teaching, mostly I was told "OK go teach". Didn't have any real paper at the time, was just the guy who had "gone before".

Why start a club if you're not a 5dan (the official rank in the CKF)? Usually, as in my case, it's because you're "it" in your city. In the large centres we have kendo dojo with multiple 7dans in the club, and no particular pressure to start a new dojo, but if you end up out of range and you want to practice, you end up starting a new dojo. Our university kendo club is often taught by a shodan but they still have a good turnout and learn the art.

If you're not the only game in town why would you open a club? It's certainly a pain in the wallet and the training, so if you can just stick around in your present one why would you not? Often we assume Ego, but if you've got a realistic view of things you'll realize there is little benefit in being the instructor, that ego boost that can happen a lot more easily when you get to be assistant instructor under the guy doing all the heavy lifting. All the glory and none of the grit.

What about getting told to go teach? I have said before that rank is a punishment, because with rank comes all the headaches of responsibility and, if you're running your own club, no benefits. Getting rank often prompts a sort of reversal of the "when student is ready, sensei appears" which is "when the students are ready, boot them out of the nest or the art won't grow". There is a club or two around here that sometimes has a waiting list of students, nice for the club but not the students, maybe it's time to boot a couple of the seniors out to start another club.

Of course there's also the case when old sensei passes it on to new sensei and all the other seniors decide that's not the guy, so leave and start their own clubs. That doesn't happen often but I've seen it.

However it happens, if it happens to you it isn't the worst thing in the world. You get to find out what you actually know, you get to find out if you are in the art for the long term or just for a good time. If you leave your old club on good terms you can and should go back and visit often to keep up your own learning, and your questions will have much more depth as you ask for both yourself and your students.

Go, Teach.

July 23, 2014

Could I get any more obscure?

I have a note here for a post that says "Take it Like a Sensei" but I have absolutely no idea what I meant by that.

It might have something to do with the injuries and pain you have to deal with while trying to show students the correct way of moving without those injuries and pain, since they don't have them and don't need to compensate by throwing their balance around the dojo like a drunken sailor.

Or maybe it's the pang you get when you show up at class and realize there's 90 percent absence due to summer "got something else to do" syndrome but there's one, single student there waiting for you who is now going to get a hell of a lesson.

Or perhaps the duty to take hit after hit from students who are learning how to target your left wrist... all those not quite stopped swings, all those "need to be sanded" splinters rubbing the hair off of said wrist.

Perhaps the duty to drink all your students under the table, keep up with the other sensei, and still show up on time for class next morning with a big grin and hearty handshakes for all.

Maybe the pain that results from not cuffing a student across the ear when they say, for the fourth time, "but sensei Joe says to do it this way". Or not yelling at them to stop just as they start moving because you just "know" they're going to do it the wrong way yet again even though you just corrected them. Or not blowing some kid off his feet as he yet again rocks back on his heels while you are working on "not rocking back on your heels or you'll get blown off your feet" exercises.

Hmm, none of those ring any bells. Maybe after a couple more coffees.

July 22, 2014

When to leave (shu ha ri)

I mentioned that sometimes you just have to admit to yourself that it's time to leave the dojo and start your own class. Some figure this process is inevitable and is a result of "shu ha ri" the way we learn budo.

It's not inevitable, and shu ha ri (keep break leave) is not a suggestion to learn, break away and leave home. I was lucky enough to get a day of koryu with my sensei last weekend and he put a nice definition and timeline on the process. Shu is to keep what your sensei is telling you, to copy and learn. You ought to do this until you're about 6dan. Now he's mixing kendo federation grades in with his koryu but the timeline is handy and he's a fan of learning koryu from day one of your iai training. To convert to years, getting 5dan will take about 11 years. Sixth will take you another five years so somewhere between 11 and 16 years is the time you should consider yourself in the "shu" the learner's range. Considering you can get to be a surgeon in that sort of time frame and be licensed to muck about in someone's innerds, you can see that he's pretty conservative. Some folks figure they've got it in two years, but I tend to go with my sensei's idea.

At 6-7dan (another 6 years to 7dan and another ten to 8dan) you should probably go and visit other sensei to get other points of view on your art. In other words you should start the "ha" process of breaking down what you've learned to understand it more deeply. That's a decade with one teacher before you start looking at other teachers.

Having started as a koryu student I have no problem with this timetable because it takes a long time to bleed one teacher dry, to absorb the understanding that teacher has of the art. But being in the kendo federation creates a different attitude for students. The kendo federation iai is "based on a book". It's external and standardized, not internal. You can go at zen ken iai from a technical point of view, you can learn it from anyone who knows the steps. The koryu system is to learn how your sensei understands the principles of the sword, the technical aspects are only there as a vessel, a holder of the underlying knowledge. In a very real way, you "learn your sensei" rather than "learn iai". Each and every person who does an art will understand it in the bones. It takes a lot of years to feel what your teacher feels in your own bones. It takes ten minutes to learn the dance steps and a couple of years to learn how to dance with millimeter accuracy so that your sword stops exactly there. A couple of years but nothing like a decade.

Those introduced to iai by way of the zen ken curriculum will instinctively figure that there's one way to do a koryu, there's a right way and a wrong way and all koryu teachers will know that curriculum well or badly so you just flit from one to another and figure it out.

That's a mistake. Sure there are koryu teachers who will teach anyone what they're doing. I will teach "how we do it" to anyone who shows up in class with permission from their teacher to learn from me. (I tend to assume if they're there they have that permission, but perhaps I should not, and often now I ask a few questions.) But never confuse learning the dance steps from me with learning sword from me. To do that you have to spend enough time doing koryu in front of me to learn how I make sense of it from the inside. It took me ten years to start absorbing the lessons, it will take you the same time and then you'll be where I was 10 years ago. I don't say that to suggest that I'm some sort of wonder-boy who knows lots, I'm just saying that you'll know what I know, which might not be much at all.

If you learn from me that your left foot may stay at an angle on the opening cut of the first kata, as opposed to squaring it up as in zen ken iai, you have learned where to put your foot. It would take me a few hours to make you feel the difference between the two, provided you have a decade of training and can feel your bones well enough. In other words, I cannot teach you the difference if you're less than about 5dan. Not really. I can give you things to practice but if you can't feel the difference between the two positions of your feet while reading this, you're not really there.

So up to 6 dan you learn from one teacher, you are in "shu" and you stick to it. Don't confuse yourself with other teachers, they will be kind, they will show you variations, but they will only distract your learning.

At 6-7dan you start to break it down said my sensei, you start to practice with other sensei that your teacher recommends, you start to see other ways to do it because now you can understand in your bones what that teacher is showing you of his bones. It's a delight to teacher and student to explore variations, to hear things from another viewpoint, to show a student a little twitch, give a little story for the deep brain to chew on. It can work at this level, without being a problem to either student of teacher. (The problem to a teacher is the headache you get when your student says "in my other club my other sensei says to do it like this..." Other sensei? Brain hurts.

Why would a sensei send a student to another teacher? Because no student can ever "be" his sensei. The body is different, the background is different, the injuries are different. Each student must find his own understanding. There are not many lines of koryu, there is a single koryu for each and every teacher out there. This is what my sensei means when he says you must make iai your own. He doesn't mean you pick and choose this or that variation from the dozens of sensei you have. He means that when you try to learn your teacher's iai, and you practice as needed with other sensei for another ten years, you will come to your own way.

And Ri? The "ri" of shu ha ri means to leave. It's to leave the need for either teacher or kata behind. Its 8dan, where you start working on riai, on the principles of iai. Note I said "start working on", a rank isn't achievement, it's not the arrival at the destination, it's the road signs that say "turn here". The "ri" stage is where you truly begin to define what the art means, and very few people in each generation achieve that level of understanding. It takes a lifetime of devotion to a teacher, to an art, and to the quest beyond both of those.

Respect those who have got there, because they've given up a hell of a lot to get there. I'm not one of them and have no desire to devote that much of my time to the quest. I've been fortunate enough to have met one or two and I figure I'm studying with one now, despite what he would say.

July 22, 2014

When to Leave

My club is based in a university and so has a different characteristic than the usual dojo you might think of. Our students come from many different places and the undergrads stay for only a few years. The longer term students tend to be in grad school and they might be around for up to ten years. Then there are the few locals who, like the usual dojo students, can be around forever.

As a result, I have tended to think a bit more about my students going out to teach in other places than in keeping them around and progressing slowly for decades. This isn't always the case in more static clubs. Another thing I've been aware of is the rather astonishing (but actually not all that uncommon) case of a chief instructor walking away from his/her own club because the students have, shall we say, outgrown their teacher. It's not always apparent that a teacher is leaving a club, it's usually done in a gentle way, with excuses of work or other commitments and then one day the "assistants" are paying the bills and teaching the classes.

I always thought it would be simpler to just boot the students out to start their own clubs before that situation developed. So I am always on the lookout for statements such as "a karate club just asked me to demonstrate" or similar, and I always say "go ahead". This lets folks who may not even be aware they want to go teach have a shot at it. If they like teaching they often start. This provides a nice outlet for those who have a real desire to try things out, and lets them concentrate when they are in class, rather than challenge what I'm saying (either outwardly or in their own heads). Nicer all around since I'm not all that tolerant of challenges and tend to go into "come here and I'll show you" mode more rapidly than is good for my aging and injured body.

But not all clubs have the mindset of sending students out into the void to teach and it may be difficult for a student to know when he should go teach on his own. There are some tell-tale signs.

Do you tend to question more than accept sensei's instruction? If your first inclination is to say in your mind "that's not right" rather than just accept an instruction, it may be time to go try out your own knowledge.

Do you treat sensei like your doddering old grandpa? Sure, as we get older and more cranky, as well as forgetful, we may ask students to take on organizational and administrative tasks, but if you find you are resenting these little jobs, or find that you are thinking that sensei would be helpless without you, it may be time to go do them for yourself. We all feel that we are indispensable but it's rarely the case, after all, how much real talent does it take to organize the annual picnic?

Do you look around for other instruction? Either on the net or from other clubs? Some of this exploration is the sign of an enthusiastic beginner, but by about two or three years you should realize that outside teaching can interfere with what you're being taught. It's only at about 10 years that the urge to go beyond should hit. If you find yourself there before that time it may be a sign that you should be out teaching and researching rather than fighting with your own sensei.

Are you proud rather than annoyed at being an "assistant instructor". If sensei sends you over there to teach some beginner do you jump at the chance or drag your feet? Personally I feel very bad about sending a student off to teach a beginner, depriving them of my instruction for that class. That may be my own ego...

Do you teach beyond your sensei? If you're assistant instructing do you find yourself saying "so and so sensei says this" and "my other sensei says that"? If you're in your sensei's class and you discuss what other teachers say on that particular subject it might be time to head out on your own. Your sensei's class is his, if you are assisting that's what you should be doing, it doesn't matter what else you know, it's his voice that counts and only his that should be heard by those beginners.

Do you perform variations? I was at an iai class being taught by my sensei yesterday and I was amazed to see some of his current students doing variations that he doesn't teach. I mean, doing a variation that he often demonstrates can just be a momentary mistake, a forgetting what he just asked the class to do, but to do a variation that isn't in his vocabulary? This made me think that I was looking at a student of some other instructor entirely, some visitor to the class. If you find yourself as that visitor it may be time to go teach on your own.

It does no good to stay with an instructor beyond the time that you're listening to him. You are learning nothing and frankly, you are pissing him off even if he doesn't show it. (I tend to rant, you'll know it if you're pulling that sort of thing on me, but I'm not as nice as some of my sensei are).

Why would someone stay in a class when they should be teaching their own? Sometimes a sensei keeps students too long, one who doesn't listen tends to create the impression of not "being ready" to go teach. That's always a hard thing for a sensei to see. Like a child who appears helpless and stays at home for years after he's graduated school, it may just be that he's lazy rather than incompetent. After all if mom will cook and clean why would junior do it?

Which is why, from the student perspective, they may stay in a club and "teach" their own way while sensei shakes his head and wonders why they are still around. Who, in their right mind, would go out and recruit students, pay rent, argue with landlords, and do all the other drudgework when they can stick around and let sensei do it for them?

Time to leave and start your own club?

July 20, 2014

The Way It Works

Recently I've realized that folks don't understand how the grading system in the kendo federation works. I've explained this before but new folks come in and other folks don't bother to question their assumptions from other arts.

First, a kendo federation grade doesn't always come from Japan. You won't have a ZNKR grade unless you get it in Japan, grades are awarded by the country you're in and are recognized in other IKF(FIK) countries, including Japan. Some time ago the ZNKR stopped doing grades outside Japan, a grading panel with Japanese sensei on it will be a panel granting rank from that specific country, not from Japan. I don't know if that applies to gradings if they are still done in association with the world kendo championships... the one in 1991 actually granted ZNKR grades to the folks who did an iaido grade in Canada. But as I understand it, that was the very last external ZNKR grade.

Neither will you get your grade from the IKF(FIK). The International Kendo Federation does not grant ranks, nor does it keep records of those grades. That is done in each member country. What the IKF does is register member countries and provide standard guidelines and, most of all, coordinate the world kendo championships. Of further note here, the FIK standard guidelines are not identical with the ZNKR guidelines. For instance, the ZNKR has removed the age exemptions for 6,7,8 dan grades so that older folks can no longer grade early. Those age exemptions still exist in the FIK guidelines which means that when I'm 60 I can grade for my 8dan in 5 years instead of 10... which makes no difference at all to me now that I think about it, but it might have.

Since the ZNKR rules are not identical with the FIK guidelines, obviously each country is free to set their own standards. For many years the CKF had years to grade that were greater than those in Japan which uses the guideline years. We have since cut those requirements as people grade slowly enough on their own. When you have tournaments based on rank it's no advantage to grade early, better to stay as long in the lower ranks as you can.

My grades are CKF grades but if I was to go to France or England they'd be recognized by the IKF affiliated organizations there. One IKF affiliate per country (again, this is because of the world kendo championships which are set up as a country to country affair, Hawaii being a historical exception and allowed to put up its own team). The structure is actually horizontal rather than vertical and Japan is (OK in theory obviously) just another country under the IKF.

So to be very clear, each country is responsible for its own gradings. In Canada the way it's set up is that the chief examiner (or a regional examiner if it's 5dan or below) will set a panel from a list of eligible examiners (realistically for us, that's anyone with the required rank) and send that list to the President who invites the panel to sit. That panel then examines the challengers on the standards set by the CKF technical committee (the chief examiner and the regional examiners and anyone those folks wish to speak to) and names of the resulting successful challengers are then given to the President who issues certificates and registers the ranks with the CKF. There is of course an administrative side to this where money is gathered and records are kept.

This is where the process stops, the ranks are not registered anywhere else, so if someone wants to grade or enter a tournament in another country, paperwork has to be provided by the CKF, usually in the form of a letter from President to President and/or a copy of the rank certificate. So don't throw those papers out folks, you may have to photocopy them at some point. If someone from Canada goes to another country to teach for several years, the kendo federation of that country may ask for proof of rank and may even ask that teacher to register his/her rank with the local federation. Again, this is because there are no records kept beyond the country in which they are issued. That means that if I go to another country to grade I will be asked to register my grade in Canada (and I think I will also be paying a small registration fee for that).

Kendo federation gradings are done by a committee of several sensei from different dojo so no getting one from your sensei or from a visiting sensei even. The grades are recognized world-wide so they have to be up to the level. The ZNKR takes a dim view of "overseas empires", so if the top guys want to give rank by themselves outside of the ZNKR/IKF rules and regs, they do it outside the organization on their own and there's no crossover. This can cause confusion sometimes, especially with sensei still active in the ZNKR who have prominant koryu organizations too.

Other ranks from other organizations are just that... other ranks. Occasionally in the past the ZNKR may have recognized ranks from other organizations (there was a ZNIR crossover at one point for instance), allowed jump grades or similar, but all that is almost certainly gone now. Canada does not do jump or crossover grades, and very few if any prefectures in Japan do jump/challenge grades any more either. Makes life simple, we don't ever have to worry about the fellow who shows up and says "I've got 300 students and we're going to start doing iaido so how about giving me an equivalent dan to what I've got" The answer is (and has been) "no thanks, but you're all welcome to start practicing".

It's educational to see which high-dan instructors of other arts will come in at the same rank as their students and which suddenly lose interest.

July 20, 2014

To Grow a Pearl

You need an irritation. I was at a country market yesterday, got a very nice piece of '50s style Japanese jewlery, a line view of Mount Fuji of course, shakudo (fake or real I don't know, gold copper and silver) on black laquer. My father brought some of this style home from the Korean war... to get back to the point, the woman behind the table was telling another woman how pearls were made, something about having to put the seed next to the sex organs.

I don't know about the sex organs, but I do know that a pearl is the result of an irritating bit in an oyster which gets coated and coated and coated in an attempt to reduce the irritation. Eventually the pearl gets big enough that now it's the irritation and it keeps getting coated.

See where I'm going with this?

Yes, sensei as the bit of irritation (stop, it's a metaphore, don't push it) and the student keeps layering on the technique to try and reduce the irritating whine of sensei's voice.

Eventually, long after sensei's teaching has been silenced by the layers of understanding and practice, the habit continues, the layers keep going on. The pearl gets bigger and more complex just because it's been growing for so long.

If the student becomes a teacher in turn we may run across another metaphore, something about pearls before swine perhaps?

Happy Sunday morning, it rained all night here at the cabin so perhaps we'll practice instead of going to the beach.

July 13, 2014

What's the Difference?

The martial arts are living, breathing things. Instructors teach different things at different times in their careers. They teach different things to different students and at different times in the career of the same student.

Beginners don't see any of that. They only know "this is the way we do it and that's not the way they do it" or if they're not quite as bright as that... "this is the right way to do it".

If you see one menkyo kaiden doing a kata one way, it may be the way he was taught, it may be that he has changed what he does, or it may be that he's showing something specific. It's only through years of looking at a teacher that you know what his "default" mode is.

The art is alive, it changes, and "koryu" can change very very fast since, as it's usually defined here, it can't be separated from the instructor. Therefore if teacher decides one day that everything is different, it's all different. You don't like it, hit the road.

More generally, I'm always tickled to hear students say "why is X different than Y" X and Y may be koryu and seitei, or it may be Joe-ha vs Fred-ha or it may even be Al-ryu vs Mike-ryu.

The question assumes that there is a difference when the real question ought to be "Is there a difference between... " This is especially true for lines within an art and even more true between two instructors in the same line.

To answer that question you need to define "difference".

Beginners can see things like.... well no. Beginners are told things like "the sword finishes in front of the shoulder with the hip angled", or "the sword finishes outside the shoulder with the hips square to the front". With those two different instructions in their heads they then extrapolate that there is a "difference".

OK think of that difference in terms of driving down a highway, you can stop for the night at town A or go on a few more Kilometres to town B. Your passenger may say "what's the difference between A and B" and in response you might say "there isn't any difference, we just stop sooner or we drive longer but intrinsically, A and B are the same, just towns along the road. The've both got the same damned hotel chains and the same damned restaurants so just pick one!"

Stay in the arts for long enough, spend enough time on the road, and you'll start to realize that only newbies think the fast food in one town tastes different than the fast food in another.

Now I corrected myself up there when I said that beginners "see". Beginners don't actually see the arts at all, they can't, they need much more experience before they start to "see". The difference between the performance of the same kata done two different times by a beginner can be greater than the discussed difference between two lines of practice.

For a beginner whose standard of error is greater than the "differences" between two lines, to discuss the difference between X and Y lines is meaningless. The question is meaningless... or rather the question is only academic, it's only rational. When the student can finally perform the difference between X and Y than he can start to "see" the difference. And at that time he may not see any such difference at all. It's in the body, not the rational mind that one understands the martial arts. There ARE things that you understand are different between one line and another, but you only understand that through the body and not by hearing someone else tell it to you. Those differences have nothing to do with where you finish a swing or where you grip the stick, they're much more basic.

Year after year I read students (and, let's face it, instructors, which is where the students get it) writing "koryu is different than seitei". Year after year it depresses me since most of the students haven't a clue what they're talking about, and in many cases the instructors should know better. The students are at least arguing from ignorance, but while some instructors may also be talking about things they know not (all those who are not "seitei" practicing members of the ZNKR for instance), some should know better. Of those who should, and who say there is a difference, you will usually find that there is a reason for them to say such things. Like for instance they are trying to prove the superiority of their practice to Joe down the street. Without a difference in the art they're teaching they are thrown back on their skills as teachers to differentiate themselves. Ouch, much better to have a secret art that's better than the common as dirt art down the street.

But we're not talking about those very few instructors, we're talking about the great numbers of students who are convinced there are differences. Let's stick with koryu vs seitei.

"Koryu jodo is different from Seitei jodo"... Ask yourself how? What differences are there?

If you can't answer, you are simply assuming there are differences because that's what somebody told you. Appeal to authority and argument from ignorance. Stop repeating it.

If you find yourself saying "well the target for koryu is the part of the bone that sticks up and the target for seitei is the bone beside the part that sticks up" you should then ask yourself if you can consistently hit either one of those targets on demand. When you can, you may very well say "hmm, these aren't really different, just two different targets for the same technique". Two towns on the same road.

If you find yourself saying "well the combative intent of koryu is fundamentally different from the sportive aspects of seitei" or some such, you should honestly ask yourself if you're qualified to make such a statement. Have you spent 40 years doing both? Have those who HAVE spent 40 years doing both told you such a thing? Every one of them or perhaps just one fellow who is saying such a thing to make a point rather than to make an absolute distinction? Second-hand statements and hearsay don't count. Translations don't count!

Budo is about being self-aware and brutally self-examining. It's fun to be an internet expert but really, is repeating "something you heard somewhere" very useful to either yourself or to those you are talking with?

Again, as I have had to do so many times in the past, I remind everyone that I'm talking generally, I am not speaking to anyone specifically. My purpose is to remind everyone that there is Yes, No, but also Mu.

"Will you tell me the difference between koryu and seitei?"

"Mu." (For those too young to remember mu, it roughly means "the question has no meaning, the assumptions or definitions are false").

July 14, 2014

Enzen no Metsuke

Did your eyes glass over when you read that title? Sure, sure, look at the far mountains, don't focus on one thing, widen your eyes so you can see everything. No problem, I've got it, I learned that when I was at my third budo lesson.

Really? Do you suppose if it was a simple thing it would be mentioned by so many martial arts so often? I listened to a magician the other day, telling his interviewer about just how narrow a field we can actually see. He mentioned the width of the thumb, you hold that up and that's your field of sight. Anything outside that and a magician is home free, we don't see the watch drop into his lap, the card flick behind his hand as he twitches our attention an inch to the side.

I just stuck my thumb up against my glasses and there's still plenty of visual field around it, even if I shut my other eye. When I leave the other eye open the thumb is transparent... funny how the stuff my thumb covers stays three dimensional, it doesn't flick between flat and depthful if I move the thumb back and forth. The biggest thumb I can make still leaves lots of space for the magician to do his tricks.

Seeing is a lot more complicated than light hitting our eye. Not so many years ago scientists were speculating that a ray shot out of our eye and hit what it was we were looking at to enable us to see it. That's not so far fetched actually, that ray is our attention, we see what we want to see, what we're trying to see, and we ignore the rest. We have to ignore the other stuff because we wouldn't be able to make any sense of it otherwise.

It's only rarely that I can actually see with enzen no metsuke while doing a sword kata with a partner. Most of the time I just move my arms and legs into the right position at the right time and it works. I have to wrench myself around to get out of that rut and open myself up to my partner. When I do that I see so much more, and the kata is so much more powerful. If I'm intercepting a sword I can do it anywhere, touch any part of it with any part of my blade. That's because I see it, and the partner, and the floor, and the angles and the speed. My eyes aren't unfocused, the mountains aren't misty, I'm just using a much wider thumbprint to watch what's happening.

I can do it for about half a second, then my eye twitches and refocuses and I have to force that wide vision once more. Half a second is usually enough.

Next time sensei talks about enzen no metsuke, don't just file it under "got it", try to use it. If you can't, try a few exercises to practice.

I'm typing this and paying attention to the girl to my left who is reading, I'm watching her to see when she turns the page, I'm also watching my cup, to my right as light reflects off of the coffee when I thump the keys, I'm trying to do both while typing and keeping my eyes centered on the screen. It's not easy, my attention flicks from one place to the other, she scratches her head and I stop typing, the coffee wiggles and I want to twitch my eyes to the right. If I do that I lose the girl.

Looking at the far mountains, not just another boring saying you should file under "read that, let's get to the secret stuff".

July 12, 2014

More Communication

I was elected to Student Council as publicity director in 1972 or some such and I've been involved in volunteer organizations almost continually since that day. I was on residence Hall Council and the University Senate and a union local exec and an exec or director of the Canadian Aikido Federation and the Canadian Kendo Federation and once rose by attrition the president of the Ontario Kendo Federation and who knows what else I would remember if I dug far enough.

It occured to me that I have been Volunteer Free for a couple of years now when the last CKF elections came around and I wondered idly if I should run again. "NO" said one of my students, "you are not doing that again, you're a much nicer person now". I suppose I did get a bit stressed once in a while, and it was usually over miscommunications of various types since I was the Secretary. In most of my jobs I was a secretary of some type because communication is important to me. Still is, and after almost 60 years I still get upset that most folks don't get the message. Any message.

Miscommunication comes about in many ways, but rarely (if the communications guy is breathing) from a lack of message being sent. Yes I'm talking to all those who say they are "out of the loop" from their organization. Unless your guys need to be put out to pasture, you will be able to find out what's happening in your group. It may take a bit of effort on your part, like maybe going to the website or picking up a telephone and making a call to the top person (try it, I bet he'll answer the phone) but you can find out what's happening.

Recently there was a survey going around that apparently showed that the membership wanted "more communication". Actually I think there was a question that said "do you want more communication" and of course it got answered "yes". I went directly into rant mode when I heard about that. First, everyone thinks they want more communication, they say they want more communication, but they don't want more communication at all. Who wants more advertisements? Anyone? That's called "push". You push information at the audience, you shove the message in their faces and say "look at this". Who doesn't know how to ignore that? Who has missed the news that Canada has just made it illegal for businesses (anyone who makes money) to push messages over email to folks who have not asked for it?

The membership doesn't want more communication, they want to know when something that interests them is about to happen, and then they want someone to stand two feet away from them and yell until they pay attention. That's the "push" that will work. The more communication messages that are shoveled at a membership, the easier those messages are to ignore. The trick is to communicate rarely and only with something interesting. In the case of most martial arts organizations that's about twice a year when a grading happens. Beyond that, well, nothing is happening so what is there to communicate about.

The opposite to "push" is "pull". You want to know what's happening? Go to the website and look, pick up the telephone and call the President. If the website hasn't been updated for three years, maybe it's time to change communicators, or maybe nothing is happening, in either case, email the president and he'll tell you, then he'll have a chat with someone if they are slacking off.

"But we pay our dues and deserve to be told rather than make such an effort. It's not our job to go hunting for information..." Yes it is. Take charge folks, your volunteer organization isn't selling you stuff, it's just a bunch of folks like you who were likely voluntold to do the drudgework of making things happen. If you're lucky that's who they are. Let's not go into those who want to "achieve things" or "run things better than", best is to have someone who will do it because they know it needs to be done and nobody else wants to do it. Like your mom washing the dishes.

You know, I've listened to people say they were upset with a business who didn't tell them they had something for sale. It's their job to advertise to us I guess, as if advertising was their product. That's how communication hungry we are as a society, how demanding we are to be spoonfed, and how picky we are about the advertising we get. Who doesn't rant about spam? We want lots of communication and we want only the communication we want when we want it. And like exams in school, we want to be handed the answers we need sans effort on our part.

Remember when Google and Yahoo decided they wanted to know where you live? It was so that they could improve your service right? Read "target the advertisements". Now they are getting even more intrusive and we like it so much they can actually tell us it's "to target your advertisements better".

Lack of communication is miscommunication about what each party wants. It's about messages that have some content on the one side, and paying attention on the other.

July 11, 2014

Going Japanese

Thinking about Yoga yesterday reminded me of Mariam, a girl I met in the coffee shop somewhere toward the end of the '70s. Can't remember her last name, but I do remember that she took up Yoga and converted to one of the Indian religions because, as I remember it, she felt that if she was going to study Yoga she should study all of it, and that included the religion of her instructor I presumed.

Wonder what became of her? I think the last time I saw her was on a barge in the harbour of Prince Rupert where I crashed for a night on her floor.

I know more than a few iaido guys who went to Japan and became priests of some sort. Me, despite three decades in the Japanese martial arts, I've never been tempted to convert to anything. I suppose the religion that I've studied most would be Buddhism, and yes, I did start my Aikido practice because I couldn't find a temple to go sit zazen, but even then I was looking for the techniques of enlightenment and not the gods.

I am actually not all that interested in the current culture of Japan. I know, I'm a shallow fellow, but I just get more out of the design of tatami rooms and temple gardens than I do out of manga and anime, golf and basuboru. I've been to Japan once, that was only a few years ago and it was because a couple of my students said I had to go, that my teachers were asking me to go. Turns out my teachers were rather surprised to see me, and it was the higher up officials in my organization that wanted to sit me down and explain some things. Most expensive scolding I ever got.

I thoroughly enjoyed Japan, I liked Tokyo and I liked the Kyoto temples and taikai and I liked rural Fukuoka and some day I may go back to see my teachers but to tell the truth I'd rather bring them here as I always have preferred to do. It's more efficient, more people benefit from the practice and more people get to see the teachers.

Speaking of foreign flights, I once spent a trip to England trying to explain to my sensei just why it is that a round-eye like myself would want to spend so much time on my knees doing a martial art that is the budo equivalent of watching paint dry. Without bringing up kyudo I told him that he had already answered his own question. While he has to do these cultural things because he's Japanese, I don't have to do them as culture at all, I do them for what I get out of them and what I get is not cultural at all. Every culture has developed ways to get in touch with "IT" directly. What "IT" is I leave to others to work out, but the sufi, the gnostics, the zennists, the shaman and the yogi all developed physical techniques that work to promote a personal experience of "IT".

Funny that those immediate practices passed from country to country without much cultural baggage until they were established and became so coated with the culture that they became the culture. Funny too that in the beginning they were almost always treated as herecy and were persecuted by the mainstream religions who held access to "IT" as gatekeepers. Eventually the immediate practices are eliminated or become mainstream and look just like everything else. Maybe the core practices remain, maybe not.

Yoga in Canada now is Canadian. Nobody would think of converting their religion to practice, it's simply a physical exercise like Zumba or Boxercize or Stripperobics. Karate is the same, it's what you put the kids into for that period between the end of school and the parents getting home from work. Smart instructors realize this and run kids from school to the dojo and have homework classes and generally act as a cultural institution within our society. They are now part of the "village" it takes to raise a kid. Nothing offshore or exotic about it. Judo had it's day in the strange rising sun of the new and is also now just another step on the way to MMA fame and fortune. Nobody thinks you should be Okinawan or study Japanese to do Karate or Judo any more, but they still attract serious students.

Iaido, Jodo and the other koryu, should they become popular, will also lose their presumed requirement to convert, and fewer students will be turning Japanese in the change rooms.

Which, as those of you that survived the '80s will know, is a good thing.

July 9, 2014

Another Day Down

Right down the tubes, except for a bit of gluing (it's laminating season). It was shipment day so I spent the morning waiting at the warehouse for a truck to arrive with 19 boxes of wooden swords for the business. The truck never arrived although they say they did, so we'll end up charged for a double shipment from Toronto to here. That's less than an hour of driving time (unless it's rush hour of course) and we'll pay twice what it cost to get those boxes from China to Toronto.

Think about that, is it any wonder that I see vegetables from China in the supermarket? Or water from Fiji? Really, it's cheap enough to run boats across the ocean to carry water to Canada. Never mind that people in Guelph drink bottled water. (Your bottled water plant is here in Guelph, the same well water goes into bottles and our taps).

But volume isn't what I'm into, I can't compete with the equipment companies that get containerloads of goods from the third world to sell to the karate kids. Note I said 19 boxes, not containers. Instead of trying to make a living pushing junk out the door, we have a single source of shiro kashi that sends us quality controlled weapons, and I make everything else.

It's niche and it's expensive and we don't sell a very high volume but I like it that way. What I don't make I can't. For instance, while waiting for the truck I spent some time photographing some kendo ya. These are metal demonstration swords which we prototyped and had made for those who want a set in the dojo. For $600 (introductory pricing for this first shipment of 5 sets) you get two long swords and a short one. These are spring steel without an edge, they won't break and they'll develop that nice saw-tooth shape you get with beginners who bang them edge to edge over the years. But the same softness means they don't bend and it's not hard to file them smooth again.

I like tools like that, much nicer than having to worry about breathing on my art blade. Oh, got a nick, well sand it out then, it's metal. He he.

But I'm not going to make those things myself, it's something that I'll outsource to those who can do it until it gets too expensive or those who are doing the craft work decide it's easier to be in an office. Like I said, niche work, sort of like the martial arts I spend most of my time with, not popular, hard to find, but the quality control is better for it.

Think yoga. When I first encountered classes in the '70s the qualifications of a yoga teacher were important. It was easy to trace the teaching lineage of all the local instructors back to someone in India, within a couple of steps. Today nobody even bothers to ask, there are so many yoga studios and classes that you just decide what night and time you want to go and then look for the class. Who bothers to worry about the quality of instruction, it's a bit of exercise, get a good sweat on and then go home. No further thought required.

Nah, I'll stick with the niche stuff.

July 8, 2014

Ha Ha Ha

I see a lot of schools around these days that are so and so ha where once they might have simply had a new name. This might reflect a move away from the "new is better" idea to the more traditional "more traditional is better".

I suppose it made sense once for an instructor of X to let a student open X-ha when travel between prefectures was restricted and schools were not allowed to have branches but it makes no sense today. Why would an instructor not simply say "call it X" if a student wants to open a dojo. There's no problem these days with having branches anywhere and lots of koryu have had international "empires" for years.

Often it's assumed that a "ha" is different than the original (rather than just being a name change for political/legal reasons which is the only reason I can think of for a student to ask about using the name). If a student is different enough from the instructor to rate a name change, he's a poor student and shouldn't be teaching, or he's deliberately changing the art, in which case he's probably either left or been booted. In either of those cases he's more likely to call it some other name since X-ha is rather subservient. Maybe call it X-batto-jutsu-iai or some such instead of X-do.

So what happens when someone starts up a ha without permission? Not a lot really. Let's take for an example the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, a major school of iai. If someone starts up a MJER-ha or more likely Fred-ha MJER and someone else objects, there is no overall licensing body to appeal to. MJER is far from being a single entity, I've practiced with at least 3 self or student-proclaimed soke, none of which have THE papers, but it goes to show that MJER is not A (single) koryu, it's a bunch of lines, some of which make a big deal about lineage and have a soke, some of which do not.

If it's a new dojo teaching MJER, why not just call it MJER? But what about a change, how do we police that? The only person/organization that would actually have something to say about mixing MJER with, say, German longsword in Australia would/might be the fellow's instructor or dojo. And even then it's not all that definite that anything would be said. If he does straight MJER in his dojo in Japan who cares what he does in another country in his own dojo.

This might change if students or other instructors brought stories and complaints back home of course. Then sensei might have to do something, whether or not he wanted to. And that does happen, often students will jibber-jabber and this will force sensei to take some sort of action. This is something that sensei usually does not thank the student for. A good rule to keep in mind is that dirty laundry should stay indoors, and certain family realities should remain with mom and pop until the kids are old enough to be told about them.

Objections or complaints about Fred-ha from anyone but Fred's sensei begin from the presumption that the koryu system is well-defined and monolithic but it's not. The two koryu arts that I do under the ZNKR are simply not interested in papers and sokes and whatnot, they're too big within the International Kendo Federation (multiple lines) and they're very clear and easy to sort out in the individual lines (I know my grandpa and his father before him). Being multiple lines in the same organization means not yammering on about who's legit and who's not (the question is simple "who's your people" or "who's your granddad", from that you know all you need to know). It also means not overstepping bounds and being respectful of other teacher's students. You practice seitei and if you teach koryu, you do it in the context of "your line does this, and mine does this". And believe me, at the top levels the instructors can all do each other's "styles".

The third koryu line I do is "old school" to the extreme. One dojo, one soke, maybe 20 people actually "in" the school and a bunch of folks around the periphery allowed to practice but certainly not "in" the school. There will not be any "ha" in that art any time soon, at least not sanctioned and that's more or less what we've been talking about. If you see Fred-ha MJER around you can be pretty sure it's not something that was sanctioned by anyone, it is, in fact, a good sign of a split in the lineage.

Is that a big problem? Of course it depends. If Fred was booted out because sensei didn't like his taste in shirts, well it might not be a problem at all. If Fred left because he thought sensei was a puffed up egomaniac? If Fred left because he figured that he had learned all there was to learn after two years of practice?

So how does one know if Fred-ha is legitimate or not? You usually can't know that, but you can know, by some polite googling, if Fred is teaching the art straight, and if he's a good fit for what you want to learn.

Going to his teacher or to some other organizational source? Fred may or may not have told his sensei about his experiments and changes, and if he did not, his sensei may or may not know about them anyway. But if sensei has said nothing, and nobody else brings the subject up, than sensei can simply ignore the whole thing, which happens far more often than people suspect.

That's what I meant about students bringing things to official attention that should likely be left alone. Letters and whatnot often demand a response that does nothing but create problems where none existed before, and this often makes the powers that be less than happy. Honestly, I'm constantly mystified at how stupid students think their instructors are. Of course they know what's going on, and they may have reasons for not doing something, reasons that go far beyond what the students know... perhaps even stretching back to before the students were born. My advice for my own students in situations like this is always "don't help us unless we ask you to help, and even then, check with us again when we're sober".

Most of my biggest headaches in the budo world have been caused by students "helping out" and thereby forcing things to be noticed officially. Not so much my direct students any more, I make sure to tell them that I'm not in need of that sort of official help and I'll ask if I do want it. No it's usually the student equivalent of teenagers who figure "dad" is stupid. If I had my d'ruthers there would be a lot more student-ha out there but those guys are not mine to boot... errr suggest it's time to start their own dojo with maybe a small name change to reflect their brilliant take on the art.

July 3, 2014