Iaido and Disability – Kim Taylor, NanaDan and GoDan, CKF

I’m not sure why this topic keeps coming up but in the run-up to the summer gradings I am once again being asked by students whether or not it’s worth them grading or even continuing their study of iaido due to bad knees, nerve damage or other disability.

We went over all this 20 years ago, but here it is again so here is my take on the topic.

I’ll teach anyone who is in front of me because I don’t think iaido is a matter of copying a book or copying what I was taught. Iaido is the use of the sword in a way that is appropriate to the situation and to the person holding the sword.

So having stated my bias, here are my arguments.

If we were creating fighting men, bad knees would be a problem. Bad knees in the current military are indeed a problem, as are bad backs and other damage caused by humping loads that are too big over broken ground. The infantry is being asked to carry everything it needs and to do it with body armour on. If we were trying to turn out warriors that had to fight from seiza then we, like the military, should indeed discard our people when they can no longer do the job. But we’re not. Iaido is not practiced as a method of fighting in defence of the country, never was.

Iaido from seiza was done because people sat in seiza. There’s nothing magical about the postion, there’s just a bunch of kata that start from there, so we practice from there. What happened the last time the Japanese sword was used in war? Nakayama Hakudo and Kono Hyakuren took the seiza and tate hiza techniques of iai and stood them up to create the iai that was taught at the army and navy officer schools. They taught standing iai because the modern Japanese army officer wasn’t going to be sitting around in seiza or tate hiza with their gunto strapped on.

How about tradition? It’s traditional for iaido to be done from seiza! Well it has been since Omori Rokurozaemon invented the techniques and they were adopted into the school, but seiza wasn’t there before that time. The Omori ryu (seiza) showed up when people started sitting in seiza a lot. Now we sit on chairs, and to my mind, it’s about time a chair set was developed (not my job). Seiza is traditional but not necessary, it’s useful but not indispensible, you can learn all the lessons of seiza by using tate hiza or standing, it may take a bit longer but again, we’re not training a military, we’ve got time. We can stand up all the seiza techniques, all the tate hiza techniques because most of them are already there in the standing set, and for what few are not there, we have good hints.

Tradition is respected exactly as much as the teachers say it is respected. I’m all for tradition, I figure we should follow it in the absence of understanding because we need to trust our teachers – teachers, but let’s use common sense, if someone can’t sit in seiza, they can’t sit in seiza. It’s a choice by the teachers to say they can’t do iaido.

But the rules say they have to sit in seiza to pass an exam. Do they? Looking through the book I see that you’re supposed to sit seiza for 1-3 of Zen Ken Ren iai, and tate hiza for number 4. Looking through some of the advice to judges I see it says we should refer to the book so OK maybe. But I don’t see anywhere that is says we cannot accomodate disability. For a kyu test we forgive a lot of stuff that isn’t “in the book”, we don’t require the precision we require for a 5dan… perhaps we should, if what the book says is iaido, what kyu challengers do isn’t iaido so perhaps they should fail. They don’t, we accomodate.

As for the grading standards of each country, well there we have it. There is nothing in the CKF grading policy that says we can not accomodate bad knees or other problems. What is not specifically forbidden falls under the jurisdiction of the chief examiner, so the bottom line comes down to what he says. If the chief examiner says it’s fine to accomodate in a grading, it’s fine. If he says no, you don’t pass if you do your seiza techniques while standing. The head judge at any particular grading can give direction on any such grey areas to the panel in his pre-grading talk. On this topic though, it’s pretty cut and dried, you pass or fail by doing seiza or not, so unless the organization needs the test fee money, the chief examiner should make a public decision and then those who can’t sit seiza will not be allowed to challenge a grade. It’s pretty simple. Now, to my mind, if the chief examiner does not forbid, head judges should also not forbid. In the absence of a negative decision, accomodation should be made.

No matter what, however, the head judge does not get to review or change the decisions of the panel, and it comes down to each judge. If the majority of judges want to fail someone for standing rather than sitting, it’s a fail. If they decide to pass even if the head judge says they must fail…. well the student should pass but the head judge will have some things to say to the panel.

But people will cheat and not sit in seiza to make it easier to pass or win a tournament. Really? Do we mistrust our students? For what reason? If they “cheat” in a tournament what do they gain? Not money, not lands, not fame and fortune. About the worst we can say is that it’s not fair to the opponent. But when I could sit seiza (and I cannot… no, will not… now) I had no more trouble doing the kata than when I stood. To make someone with bad knees sit seiza against a person who has good knees is more fair? Not in my opinion. Stand the bad knees up and judge the iaido not the health of the competitor’s knees.

Same goes for gradings, judge the iaido, not the knees, or the nerve damage, or the stroke, or the missing limb (all of which we have taken into account in the past). And as far as someone passing a grading without seiza, what harm is that to the art if their iai is good and their teaching skills are unimpaired? What harm to the organization? None at all, in fact it’s more fees into the bank account!

So what does Japan do? Ah, the ultimate argument yes? Well Japan allows for disability with a doctor’s note, and the disability is noted on the grading sheets available to the panel. While this seems a good idea, and it obviously works for Japan, there are some things to consider in the West. First, we don’t have huge numbers of anonymous students lined up in front of us. It’s pretty clear to us who has a problem without consulting doctors. Next, not all people have access to doctors notes for free, and remember these notes must be obtained for every test. Health changes from test to test. Who puts all this medical information on the grading sheets? It has to go in there before the grading? And a doctor’s note? “Hey doc give me a note that says I can’t fold my legs past the place where you would consider it smart to fold them and then drop my entire body weight onto them” ….. “umm OK”. What’s the note prove?

Bottom line, it’s no big deal not to grade in iaido, so the organization should decide whether accomodation is allowed or not, and then put a mechanism in place to accomodate if it does. My favourite mechanism is “benefit of the doubt” where I assume if someone is not in seiza there’s a reason for that beyond “I’m tired and don’t feel like it”. I can usually tell if they’ve got knee problems anyway, they look like they have knee problems. So grade or don’t grade, simple one.

What about practicing iaido at all? Well that’s up to the instructor and all the points above are relevent. Here’s one final: Folks should be tough, it’s a martial art after all.

When I was young I believed this. I was tough, I used to exercise until I threw up, I did Aikido with dislocated shoulders, I did Tae Kwon Do with broken fingers, I played football with damaged knees. I still do very stupid things in a similar manner but now it takes me years instead of months or weeks to recover and it never comes back all the way. It Never Did, but I didn’t know that.

My point is that it is unfair to a student’s future life for us to demand they try to do seiza when they can’t or shouldn’t. Broken knees mean a poor old age. Replaced knees do NOT bend to seiza. We are not allowed to ask people to sacrifice their future independance for what amounts to our amusement. In fact, as one of the damaged, supposedly smarter, certainly older, folks who have “gone before” I figure it’s my job to watch my young students and when they start to do something that might damage their old age say “get off your damned knees and do it standing!”

But that’s just me.

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