A former student of mine who has moved away asked me if I thought self-practice of iaido was something that was possible for him.
There are two answers to that question. First, if you want to get ranked in the art, than no, there’s no way you can practice without a teacher in seitei iai and get a rank. I don’t care how good you are, you can’t move through the ranks without a teacher.
Despite the supposed “objective” aspects of seitei practice and judging, there is too much to fill in between the lines and you can only do that with a teacher who is up on the latest flavour from Tokyo. Note I didn’t say Japan, I said Tokyo, as the rest of Japan apparently struggles just as hard as the world outside Japan to keep up with the standards as given by the powers that be. This won’t stop any time soon so a connection needs to be made through an instructor who is plugged into the information pipeline.
Now some may remind me that gradings aren’t given by Tokyo (up to 5dan) but by the regions, and that outside Japan gradings aren’t given by Japan at all, or even the FIK (international kendo federation which is the body where all countries are linked, Japan included). That may be true but most countries, Canada included, pay attention to what we are told is the current practice so judging-wise, we have always followed the crowd.
For the koryu folks that are now thinking that it’s not that way in their organization, I assure you it is. Rank in a koryu depends on a teacher as much as in the kendo federation. Rank means, is defined as, a certification of a level of ability or permission from another person or organization. If there is an organization out there that awards rank for ability to anyone who walks in off the street, I’d be looking closely at the cost of that rank. While I know some folks who were offered rank to join another organization, it inevitably involves moving sufficient numbers of students into the other financial stream, or else the potential to attract more students to a new art. Offering advanced rank to outsiders is about increasing membership dues, cross-ranking of self-inflated rank hierarchies (membership again, as beginners are supposedly impressed by high rank in multiple arts), or, more charitably, just slotting folks into the rank system (but again, why the switch and why not start at the bottom?)
Of course, my student is quite unlikely to want to grade in the art, he just wants to practice, and that’s an entirely different thing. To practice iaido all you need is a basic understanding of the forms, a sincere desire to understand the principles, and a self-critical approach to each practice. Considering hr emailed and asked if it was possible to practice “down on the farm” and even went so far as to send a couple of videos to make sure he wasn’t too far off the mark, I’d say he was well-equipped to practice iaido for the values that I consider important. (That would be pretty much everything except the desire to achieve rank, which I consider more important to instructors than students for the obvious political and art/organization-promotional reasons).
I think I’ll tell him to go right ahead and come see me when he’s in the neighbourhood.