So this was to be my final blog post for 2012, it got delayed quite a bit with all the stuff going on at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 and by February I decided that it would be best broken up into several sections so here goes part 1…
I expect this will probably be my final blog post for 2012 so it’s going to be a long one. I just got back from the 20th Anniversary of Tenshinkan Dojo, Warsaw which saw the first Suio Ryu Koden Embu Taikai in Europe. I was invited by Marcin Wojtacik along with:
· Robert Rodriguez Sensei: (Suio Ryu)Iaido 7th dan, Jodo 6th dan
· Patrik DeMuynck Sensei: (Tamiya Ryu) Iaido 7th dan, Jodo 6th dan
· Takao Momiyama Sensei: (Muso Shinden Ryu) Iaido 7th dan, Jodo 7th dan
· Neil Kemp Sensei: (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu) Roshukai Iaido
· Philipe Merlier Sensei: (Muso Shinden Ryu) Iaido 6th dan
· Henry Schubert Sensei: (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu) Iaido 5th dan, Jodo 5th dan
· Jose Martinez Aberco Sensei: (Suio Ryu) Iaido 5th dan
This for me was a complete delight; I get on well with these EKF teachers and had never met Neil Kemp before although I had heard a lot of good things about him. For those that don’t know him, Neil heads the UK Roshukai group, a group of dojos who were under the tutelage of the late Iwata Norikazu Sensei learning the Tosa-ha branch of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido. Robert had through his presence brought a massive contingent of the Spanish Iaido group as well as many students from Versailles. They all seemed very excited and glad to be here.
On Day 1 the event was divided into those who wanted to do koryu (dividing into Muso Shinden Ryu, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu with Neil and Henry working together, Tamiya Ryu and Suio Ryu) and those wishing to do seitei (mainly people taking a dan grading that day). Given that there were some 33 people in this group and I had been asked to lead this group I asked Jose for some help to which he obliged. We ran through three katas at a time showing the important points and addressing questions. BY rotating ten people out at a time we managed to get through a lot of actual kata practice. We tried to emphasise the importance of correct footwork –this seemed to stick with some people and not with others. We did a bit of a grading rehearsal and then the grading was on us.
The results were quite mixed but I could see that nearly all the panellists were fairly consistent in their marking. The shodans and nidans were not much of a problem with them all passing, the sandans passed three out of five but only four out of thirteen yondans passed (31%). It reminded me of the article by Peter West, The 4th Dan Barrier in Iaido which I will represent for you here, it is an excellent read:
In my opinion to pass 4th dan an applicant must show ALL of the following:
- There should be no technical errors in the Seitei performance. (By technical errors I mean those details describing the correct actions of the reiho and kata as laid down by the ZNKR. The document for this has been ably and expertly translated by Chris Mansfield and copies are readily available. This project has been of enormous benefit to our Iaido. All members should obtain a copy.)
- There should be no errors in the reiho
- The first cut of the first kata must be strong, well timed and decisive. (In 1995 Sagawa Sensei made the point that the first cut is the most important. If it fails, then anything that follows has no meaning. In competition he said that if two performances are so similar it is impossible to judge between them, then the effectiveness of the first cut should be the deciding point.)
- Shisei should be strong, focussed and well balanced. (shisei does not only mean having good posture physically, but the correct state of mind)
- Kigurai should be demonstrated from the first moment you are seen approaching the shinza jo to your manner after leaving.
- The performance should demonstrate Jo-ha kyu in all actions, kan kyu in the kata, ma and maai should be correct as demonstrated by metsuke and how far you travel between cuts for the timing you choose.
- The performance should demonstrate aji, fukaku
- There should be no suki that could be entered by a person of at least similar grade.
- This is the first grade at which the performance should consistently appear as though it would work in a real situation. (The applicant should not look as though they are trying to correctly remember a sequence of movements, but are performing naturally and realistically, performing effective cuts and strikes to deal with the situation of the Riai of the kata while remaining in control and not looking overly aggressive, rushed or as if taken by surprise.)
This may all sound a tall order, but is it really too much to expect after a minimum of 7 years training? I really don’t think so. And, as I have said, this is only my opinion. Other examiners may have different criteria. That said, I feel confident that all of us who have sat on grading panels in the UK have similar requirements. I know people have passed that I have thought should not, and vice versa. For this reason, to eliminate the inevitable variations of specific expectations of the different examiners, grading panels increase in size for higher grades.
You might reasonably ask then, what you should do if you are one of the unfortunate people who have failed 4th dan on more than one occasion.
- Of course, more training is necessary, but if what you are training is incorrect it will do you no good. You need to find out what is wrong with the way you train.
- After teaching at Watchet last year it became all too apparent that many people who do not train kendo, but only iaido or Iaido and Jodo do not do enough suburi. Suburi not only improves cutting efficiency (reducing the need for force and making the movement faster, sharper and less stiff), but improves shisei, breathing, seme, kigurai and many other aspects of the performance.
- Seek help from other teachers. This is not an insult to your own teacher, whose permission or recommendation should be sought. I don’t mean you should abandon your own teacher. Seeking help elsewhere is useful for you both. This can be done at BKA seminars for example, or squad training. Another teacher might explain the same thing differently or change the emphasis so that you better understand what you have already been shown. This is particularly the case if you have access to a Renshi or Kyoshi instructor from time to time. Looking beyond the confines of your own dojo and deepening your understanding in this way is the “Ha” stage of “Shu-ha-ri”. Anyone seriously challenging 4th dan should be seeking knowledge and understanding from all sources and beginning to assimilate different methods.
- Have faith in what you have been taught and in your training. Practice with no thought as to the correctness of your movements, but try to imagine the enemy and deal with the situation using the method in the kata. Use a video camera and review your practice as soon as possible after the session so you can recall what happened, how you felt and connect what you see with the performance itself. Of course you should not be making technical errors. By this I mean that your training should now allow and enable you to perform a kata correctly in this sense without thinking through the various stages and moves. This will allow your movements to flow naturally your own personal interpretation of ma and mai will develop and subsequently so will fukaku.
- Do grading embu practice as often as possible.
At all times maintain a positive attitude. We all have barriers to our progress, and they are often related to a wrong perception, or wrong thinking rather than bad teaching or reaching a competence limit of some kind. When this barrier has to be crossed, and it is different for all people, it can seem insurmountable and frustrating, but generally most people hit one in those 3 years after third dan. Look deeper, train harder and seek further afield for the answers. They are there to be found.
Peter West Myoken Dojo
I guess what this means for me is that most cannot pass their 3rd dan and then carry on coasting at the same speed into their 4th dan. At some point one has to engage significantly more with their training and their budo; simple repetition of forms will probably not suffice. This has prompted me to write a more in-depth document for taking iaido gradings in my capacity of Iaido Bucho for the British Kendo Association, not because I claim to know all the in’s and out’s completely but I do know that there is a lot of information out there which relates to this topic which doesn’t always get distributed evenly to all members.
So what else does this mean?
In my humble opinion, and this mirrors heavily on that which Peter wrote, before one even tries for 4th dan one should be starting the gentle separation from the reliance on one’s teacher to be the single source of knowledge, feedback, criticism. Quite recently at 4th dan gradings it has become apparent that many of the candidates had insufficient idea or perception of what they were doing in comparison to the standard seitei description. There was lots of evidence of hard practice but not so much in adherence to technical detail. I wonder if any of them had seen themselves on video doing iaido. I don’t mean spending hours delighting oneself with relentless showings of one’s last taikai embu; I mean that, for example, every time someone videos me doing a taikai, grading, embu or just training, I try to watch it very carefully trying to identify: bad habits that have crept in or crept back, good aspects that I want to amplify more and simple compliance or non-compliance with technical standards. Those who have read older posts in this blog may know already that I wasn’t against doing weekly videos of my grading practice and getting home to go through it frame-by-frame and critically appraising the technical correctness and performance of each form. I’m not suggesting that this is anything special, I just think that a serious approach to training, where training opportunities might be limited to a few hours a week, requires a very broad range of training aids to progress oneself.
I would like to unpack that further: simply turning up to the dojo once or twice per week for a couple of hours isn’t going to overcome the natural plateau’s that occur in one’s development. One has to do some kind of “extracurricular activity” and the higher the immediate grade one is aiming for the more is required. Most of us outside of Japan unfortunately don’t have the luxury of having a dojo and a sensei available for nearly every day of the week. I am sometimes ashamed and frustrated that I don’t train more considering how much time my line of teachers have devoted to their training. Some of this is me being lazy, other times I’m enthusiastic to train but I just don’t have the opportunity to have some space and time to do it properly.
End of Part One