Old style paper vs new style paper – Feb 23, 2014, Kim Taylor, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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