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Firstly I would like to say that all of the material contained within this blog is of my own opinion and any inaccuracies in technical content or other's personal quotations are completely my own.

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7th dan iaido grading due in

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Wonder of Lists (oh, and some dummy’s guide for taking a grading)

Everyone loves a list, don’t they? It’s like the Readers Digest method for learning anything; reduce a whole group of concepts into lists, numbered or bullet pointed, and it somehow looks more attractive and easier to remember for us. In fact I memorised a list memory-retaining method for sticking some of these following points in my head while I was unable to write them down. Surely the word “listless” refers to the fatigue generated by trying to remember something without the ability to consign it to a list.

Well, on this flight to Poland (the second time in as many weeks) I thought I would put together another of these lists and talk about what is usually never written down – a summary of all the unwritten “handy hints and tips” about taking a grading. Those of you that have had involvement with being “on the other side of the tablecloth” are surely aware of all the tiny reasons why grading candidates get docked one point or gain another but I’m sure this knowledge should be known equally by those for whom it is more important (and who definitely have some financial stake in it).
I should emphasise here that this whole article is my opinion only, some of it based on what I have heard from other panellists, some of it probably from my own feckin’ humble opinion. It’s not official and if you take note of it I won’t be held responsible for you passing, failing or the increase in number of odd socks. Hopefully though this will all be useful and I look forward to hearing some more good advice from those who read this and have had similar experiences…

  1.  Dress for the occasion


I always used to be fond of slightly worn and faded jodogi, like how jeans always look best after a few years of being used to wrangle horses or dig for coal. I have heard in the last few years though that faded jodogi aren’t good for gradings so with this in mind it seems that having blue arms, feet and possibly ears is more favourable than having a keikogi that shows that you have trained hard (or washed your keikogi in pure acid). For training and appearing at seminars one should be smartly dressed anyway. This doesn’t mean buying a new keikogi every year but things like holes in knees should be repaired and the kit should be clean. For the grading itself though, one should be wearing the best of what one has. In this instance, holes in the knees (or in the bicep area of the left arm depending on how you prefer to do tsuka-ate) is not a good thing.
It should be remembered that grading candidates are making a presentation of their iaido and jodo and showing the very best of what they can do. Commitment to your art might also include tying your hair back especially if it keeps getting in your eyes or getting stuck in your saya when you do noto. These are small, cosmetic things but everything counts (having once failed my 6th dan grading and then being told my hakama was too long I am sensitive to not letting others suffer the same treatment). Realising that not everyone can afford two sets of keikogi or even a decent sword, there’s nothing wrong, or rare, about asking to borrow something from your dojo colleagues (I mean like a hakama with no holes in, not 250 Euros for a new one).
No one is going to pass you solely for having been to the hair stylist before but if you look like you have just come out of the forest from a six-month “getting to know yourself” period then you might not get the best reviews from the panel. Oh, and the steam iron does often come with instructions in case you’re not sure how to use one.

(…incidentally, the bottom of the hakama should be in line with the ankle bone)

2. Arrive early (like one year before)

Why wouldn’t this be an obvious one? Get there early and you have time to get dressed properly, warm up, do some practice, ensure you know where to go and what to do, keep warm, get re-dressed and then get bored of course. Seriously though, it’s important that you are not flustered before the grading and in all the activity to get registered and get to the right place it is possible to lose one’s cool. When everything else is ready though, you can sail over to get your “certain to fall off during the grading” sticky number and then be ready to perform.
As I get older and generally lazier, I am starting to realise how much my performance is affected by how “warmed up” I am. I don’t just mean a minute of jogging, I mean every muscle woken up, exercised, stretched and ready to move. My best iai for example is normally done at the end of our regular 2-hour sessions, not five minutes from the start.

3. The Pre-Grading Seminar


In the BKA and I suspect in many other countries, it is not compulsory to attend the pre-grading seminar to take and pass one’s grading. In these cases one cannot be failed for not attending the pre-grading seminar.  It would, however, be a bit stupid not to. I mean why wouldn’t you? Here is a chance to:
a)      Get a sneak preview of what exactly the grading panel will be looking out for (hint: it will probably be footwork).
b)      Allow the seniors (who will probably be the examiners) a chance to see you perform so that they know you have trained hard and fulfil the “depth of practice” criteria (yes, this is a criteria as one ascends the grades).
c)       Do some training and maybe push your 99% of what is required for the grading to the 103% for what is required.
d)      If you lucky and are told the shitei waza in advance of the grading then you can focus on those kata and make sure that you are doing them to the very best of your ability.
I am painfully aware that on more than one occasion, someone who has failed a grading has asked a panellist why and been told “because you didn’t come to the seminar yesterday”. I am now almost certain that the meaning of this wasn’t

“you didn’t attend so we failed you”

          “you didn’t attend and didn’t get told the important things to focus on and then you didn’t   perform them so we failed you”.

Of course, life happens and sometimes one might be too busy to attend the pre-grading seminar. In that particular case it might be better to consider that now is not the perfect time to take the grading although one should of course be ready to take the grading before attending the pre-grading seminar which leads us onto the contradiction of…. 

4. Be ready to take the grading before attending the event

Yes, I know that this kind of contradicts point 3. but the meaning of this is for you to be as prepared as you can be before the event. Don’t attend the pre-grading seminar with the expectation that you will learn everything you need to pass in that one-day session. Hopefully your own teacher will have got you adequately prepared for the grading. Also hopefully you will have attended a few seminars before your grading and received some useful input from other seniors. Remember, for iaido and jodo this is generally a seitei-based examination. What you do in your dojo is your own business but the examination is based on an international standard and with its occasional “gaps in detail for personal interpretation”, it wouldn’t harm to know what other people, more senior than you, make of these personal interpretations.


5. If you can’t do the difficult stuff well then you need more training; if you don’t do the easy stuff well, you’re an idiot


I make light of this but it is also incredibly important. Easy stuff like reiho, putting on your hakama the right way, standing in keito shisei etc. requires the minimum of physical fitness, flexibility and skill. It is stuff that you have to learn and then show that you have learnt it. Speaking personally, on the few times I have been on a grading panel if I see someone do something like reiho incorrectly I don’t necessarily make a big thing of it but I do then keep an eye out for other fundamental stuff being done correctly (or not). It wouldn’t surprise me if a. other people think the same way or b. I learnt this from my seniors (and so read a.)
Jodo, whilst having less to do in reiho, has similar easy things that need to be remembered but which require virtually no physical exertion or coordination such as:
a.       Not bringing your feet together at the end of the kata
b.      Not bringing your feet together when you walk back to your start line
c.       Not bringing your feet together when you start a kata
d.      You get the point, I’m sure


6. Behave yourself before the grading

By this I don’t mean spend the morning in quiet meditation but before the examination it might be better not to:
a.       Indulge in with wrestling your dojo colleagues like a bunch of piglets.
b.      Get drunk at lunchtime.
c.       Fall asleep in the dojo with your hakama hitched up to your thighs.
d.      Practice your exotic and unique koryu (unique, just like everyone else’s) when you are just about to do 5 seitei shitei waza (or amounts more than 2).
Everyone deals with pre-grading stress in their own way but it is important to display some decorum before you get elevated to your lofty new responsibilities. It is also important not be outside drinking coffee when the grading officials are looking for you.

7. This is your grading and your life force is limited

This is more particular for jodo than iaido. Quite often someone going for, say, 4th dan will do uchidachi for someone going for, say, 2nd dan. This of course is done out of nothing but kindness for others, showing willingness to sacrifice one’s own time and effort for the benefit of others.

Unfortunately it says some other things to the grading panel such as:
·         “I am so good at jodo that I can focus on this person’s katas as well as my own”
·         “I don’t need to train with my grading partner that much in preparation for my grading”
·         “I’m going to leave my number attached just to make the grading a little bit more challenging for the panel”
·         “I want you to watch all my mistakes not once but twice, or more, just so you can be sure that I’m doing stuff wrong”
None of the good reasons for partnering someone else before your own grading are as impacting as those above (in my opinion). All gradings should be treated with some seriousness (there are almost certainly people other than you who have contributed something to getting you ready to take your grading) but this seriousness doesn’t shine through if you appear already sweaty and with your number label tsuki’d to death. There are almost certainly other people not taking a grading who can partner someone for theirs.

8. Read the regulations, dammit!


Actually, there are some rules for being a grading panelist (a whole course in the UK) and there are even some rules about being a grading candidate that might be useful to read. For example, many countries don’t allow people to take a grading of ikkyu and above with a bokuto but still some people turn up with one. Usually these rules are on federations’ websites or are available from the grading officer. Just like your first time for diffusing a nuclear bomb, you might want to read the instructions first.

9. Sticky means slowly

Could that be the title of the new Rolling Stone album? Anyway, this generally refers to the fact that most of the parts of katas which require some skilful coordination are trained, demonstrated and performed a bit slower than the simpler movements. A simple downward cut is difficult to do extremely well but is also difficult to completely mess up. This is why generally kirioroshi is done quickly, right? But let’s look at a few example more-complex parts that people make a complete hash of because they try to do it quickly when in fact there is no requirement to do them like that:

a.       Mae: Furikaburi – of the seven grading points for this form, three (although I count four really) are directly referring to or have strong correlations with how furikaburi is performed. Furikaburi is not required to be performed quickly, in fact most teachers want to see some contrast in speeds between furikaburi and “cuttier” bits like nukitsuke and kirioroshi. And yet people love to bring the sword straight up onto the centreline, drop the tip, bring their right arm in front of their eyes. Don’t do it; take your time; get to the choppa (taking all necessary care)!
b.      Hissage/Kasumi/Tachiotoshi/Raiuchi/Midaredome: Gyakute no kamae – when standing like a lemon in awase at the beginning of these forms one should be gripping the jo in a relatively strong gyakute grip. Why some people seem to think that gently pinching the jo between thumb joint and forefinger like picking up a piece of toilet paper stuck to one’s shoe is correct is slightly mysterious. Oh, and right now the grading panel are now looking at you standing there like that wondering what else you are going to do wrong.
c.       Shihogiri: Wakigamae  - no wakigamae, no cigar! There is one requirement of this kamae in this form – that it exists! If you lower the sword into gedan and then turn the body and lift the sword up then you have just skipped one of the vital parts of shihogiri (a bit like driving to work without a leg). It’s not difficult, it doesn’t require speed or athletic prowess, it definitely annoys the panel when it’s not there.
d.      Err, everything: Metsuke – I suspect that Japanese sensei scream about metsuke more because it requires more effort to do it wrong than doing it right. Perhaps I am being too harsh though, the rules are pretty simple:
a.       Look at what you are doing and where you are going
b.      Refer to a.
There are a few variations on where to look in different parts of the kata but generally one looks into the distance during the fight (like, kinda, at the opponent) and looks down at the end of the fight (just to check that their opponent has fallen into a dignified position and isn’t showing their ankles). For seitei iai, when you bow to the sword, you look at the sword as you bow even if you are maintaining some magical 360° spatial awareness. When you are bowing to the shomen you look towards the floor and don’t keep peering forwards like you’re afraid the wall is going to fall on you. When you are walking back to the start line you try to judge your position based on your warrior-special-powers of recognising where on the planet you are, you don’t look down at the start line to make sure that no chipmunks have taken residence there.
e.      Start line – known as the “kaishisen” which means “there is a trapdoor to some crocodiles in front of this line”. Between kata it is enough to return to being close to this line, if you are a bit in front – no problem, if you are bit behind – no problem. Skilled taikai exponents will adjust themselves in relation to the kaishisen so that they don’t step out of the shiaijo area or decapitate a judge (thus potentially costing them a flag). At the beginning and end of the grading though one should be careful to be behind the line. Up to a certain level in iaido (let’s arbitrarily say nidan) it’s not a problem to kneel on the line to do one’s torei, after that though one should check what is fashionable at the moment.

So there you have it. Nine beautifully formed, evenly sized, cream-filled slices of strawberry grading advice.

I am now off to catalogue my spice rack….

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