There has been some talk lately (always) about relative skill levels in iaido ranks between countries. One statement I heard lately concerned a concern about “perceived inequalities”.
Indeed, perceived by whom? Firstly it would have to be by someone who cares about rank, someone to whom it mattered. I don’t mean an organization, rank really does matter to the rank granting person or group because it’s a way to obtain fees and its a way to certify instructors and judges. As I’ve often said, there are two ranks of meaning, you can teach and you can certify teachers. I was reminded this last weekend that there is a third, you can certify those who certifiy. Well yes, that’s true but a topic for another day.
Back to perceived inequalites between countries. The discussion needs someone who cares about grade as I said, and of course there are many who do. One usually cares about grade because it is connected to desires. For confirmation of skill, for validation of general worth, or to satisfy the desire to teach (which is connected with the insane idea that teaching is a desirable thing to do). One might care about rank so that their organization have the ability to grow and perpetuate itself (ie have teachers and judges to make more teachers). This last is, to my mind, a fine reason to care about rank, as is the desire to contribute a bit of cash back to the organization, although that can always be done with a direct donation. The other reasons are selfish and ought to be guarded against.
The next thing needed to be concerned about differential skill levels is the belief that there is some way to make that distinction. The immediate response is, usually, “you can tell”, but how does one “tell” different skill levels in iai? Let’s go through the possibilities. First of course is always “because I can see it” which implies you have the ability to judge the relative levels of folks. Are you of judging rank? If not, perhaps you should question your ability to judge objectively. Are you a judge? If not, and you are of judging rank you might consider why you are not on the judging list rather than judge others… yes there is more to being a judge than being of eligible rank, provided there is enough qualified rank around.
Alright, so “my sensei says the levels are different”. Assuming your sensei is on the judging lists, you may have an argument here, but is your sensei objective about other judging panels? Really? The very fact that he is questioning other judges calls into question the entire judging system. All of it.
Let’s cut straight to the crux of the matter. Iaido is judged subjectively and so requires judges that can see the difference in level between challengers to a rank. Tournaments are the same, one must have the ability to judge between two competitors and say one is better than the other. No problem you say? What is the judging criteria? Do you know? As a judge I have been through judging seminars but do I know that those in other countries have been through the same seminars? I assume so, but does that mean we all see the same thing? We all interpret the criteria in the same way? The fact that there is a panel which votes and which sometimes splits votes will tell you something about that if you think a moment.
So I’m saying that subjective voting is subjective? Yes. It will never be anything else. So let’s get away from gradings as a way of determining relative skill levels and just go to the tournament model. Umm what tournament? There is no world iaido championships, so we can’t go there to see if one country is better than another at a specific rank. But there is an all Japan tournament isn’t there? So we can look to that to see if the idea of tournament rather than grading panel is a good way to sort the levels. So we look, and what do we find? It would seem that the best iaidoka seem to drift around the country each year as the tournament moves from province to province.
Go look up the results and compare the winning team to the hosting province.
As the students at the seminar this weekend noted, there may be some problems with the tournament theory of sorting so other ideas were put forward. The sorting hat was rejected out of hand as it being hard to find a hat. Direct competition with sharps was suggested (the “rats in a barrel” method of sorting) but even there it was admitted there might be problems with sorting skill levels since so many other factors come into being like age, injury, wind velocity, angle of the sun and the local laws on duelling.
Like trying to determine which professional sports team is the best, it’s better argued by the fans over beer than by such “objective” tests as wins or losses, otherwise there would be no fans for those teams which have not won a championship in two generations.
Relative iaido skill level per rank. What is it? What do you measure? Who determines or how is it determined?
Do You Care?