Kata Kollecting – June 11, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

I have been down the rabbit hole once more looking at kata lists for koryu iaido, and as usual I’m amazed at just how consistent things are given how inconsistent the old densho were.

Many of the old licenses hold a list of the kata that the student has learned to achieve that level. In the days before digital files it was pretty easy to list things out of order, or to forget kata or to add others. Especially when you get to the higher sets of practice which, by being super-secret, are done less often. There’s a reason the school curriculum ends up written on the wall of the dojo after all.

In this specific case I’ve been looking through the kata lists for Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, Tanimura and Shimomura ha, and Muso Shinden Ryu. I don’t mean four lists as you might think from the above, I mean the multiple lists in each of those above from translated densho on the net, books, and Wikipedia, not to mention my own notes of course. What I’m noticing is that standardization tends to center on the most wide-spread information source. The list in Wikipedia is easiest to get to, and is starting to be the default, and before that it was the mass-market book. I’ve mentioned before that I learned three different Tachi Uchi no Kurai sets over the years, but the one that is standard in my circle of iai is the one in Mitani Yoshiaki’s second book, the one that most folks have. Even there, you can see some small differences between that edition and the earlier.

Of course the big standardizing movement, at least traditionally, in this lineage came from Oe Masamichi setting things in place and even re-naming kata to establish the MJER lineage as we know it today. I can’t imagine he did much rearranging since the various lines and densho seem to be pretty close to what we have now even before the “rearrangement”.

Along with the lists I must also check who taught who because I’m looking for a specific line. Who taught who? Yikes, what a concept. We’re looking for straight lines in a plate of spaghetti. We truly believe in the one teacher per student thingie but it was never, ever that way if there were more than one teacher available in the region. Now, from a standardization point of view that’s not a bad thing. One line from one teacher very quickly gets into unique lines. Doing a bit of cross training between dojo will smooth out a lot of variation.

So let’s get back to Kata Kollecting now that I’ve drifted a bit and hinted at how kata get created. The beginner starts learning a few kata and as he learns the first set he’s introduced to the next. His skill levels improve and so he’s taught something a bit extra with the next set and with the next. Of course this creates the idea that if only you could learn enough kata your skill levels would be incredible so let’s get as many kata collected as we can.

This lasts for about ten years or when the student starts writing lists on the dojo wall because there just isn’t enough room in his head for all the names. Notes get written too because a lot of these kata start to look like a lot of other kata. (I swear at one point I knew 14 different kata that were a horizontal cut followed by a vertical cut).

Then comes the contraction years when the man gets shorter, his hair gets thinner and his desire to keep a dozen slightly different kata separate becomes smaller. Kata collecting becomes kata parking, “here, you! learn this set and remember it so I can concentrate”. I used to be so proud that I could rap out the name of the next kata when sensei got that puzzled look in his eye and said “what’s next” in class. Now I get it, that’s what 4dans are for! To remember all the names and all the minor details I taught them three years ago when we last did this set of kata. They even remember things like “I learned this variation from so and so”. Very useful and as long as one remembers to force the same information on a younger student before the 4dan catches on, you’re good.

I remind myself of this as I consider how far to push this research down the lineage / kata list investigation. How much does a new student need to know considering some of these lost kata and found kata and cross-named kata are so close to each other technically?

Will probably get over it and move on to more productive activities when the coffee wears off.

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