Off In the Wilderness – Oct 31, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

One of my long-time internet acquaintances is from South America and has expressed some concerns about his own zen ken ren iai (seitei) practice (is he up to date) what he’s teaching his students (are they learning correctly) and his own conservatism (demanding more from his junior students) which might be mirroring the Japanese-led creep toward higher standards for higher grades (the lower pass rates as students pile up at the higher ranks).

Been there, still there. I started my iai practice in 1983 with a bit of Muso Shinden Ryu koryu and worked away at that mostly by myself for four years. In 1987 I found a teacher who was Kendo Federation but it was another four years before the CKF organized an iai section and the first gradings were held. We started with whatever we had picked up about the zen ken ren iai, which was the first seven techniques, most of the instructors here having left Japan when there were only 7 in existance. Books were our guide for the kata from 7 to 10 while we worked hard to build students and contact others in order to bring a teacher from Japan. Once we started our annual seminar in Guelph we picked up the last three kata and got the latest instruction on all 10. As we learned this we adjusted our standards to the new levels, keeping to a two year cycle. The first year we taught the “changes”, then at the grading we passed students on the old standard but noted that next year they had to change. The second year we would deduct points for anyone who hadn’t changed yet.

Over the years, as we have kept up through the seminar and our own skills have increased, it has been hard to resist the urge to demand instant changes from challengers, and to judge to our own skill level rather than to what is reasonable for beginners. In other words, as we get better we naturally tend to figure beginners should get better too. OK maybe if our teaching skills are increasing with our knowledge the students might learn a bit faster, but gradings are as much about reminding us what the students know as they are about meeting some sort of standard in our heads. You look at the first few students with a generous heart and you judge the rest based on what the first few know (always provided they meet the minimum standard of course). If you go in hard-assed, the pass rates are low.

But low pass rates say as much about the instructors as they do about the students don’t they? How are your teaching skills if your students can’t pass your standards? Or we might be talking about a bell curve here, just set the pass percent and judge on a sliding scale to make sure you meet the required standard. In that case it doesn’t matter how talented your students are, the curve will ensure the result you want overall, you’re not working to an objective standard any more, but against fellow students. The best of the bunch will pass, the worst, over a standard or not, will not.

What about the piling up of rank that is supposedly happening in Japan? That country won’t give out anything beyond 8dan and the society is a very aged one, resulting in a lot of older folk with 8dan. Since you really don’t want all that many folks at the upper level of any organization (a good recipe for a split) you wind down the pass rate which then starts to trickle down until beginners are being asked for a lot. If we’re full at 8dan, then 7dan becomes the obtainable goal to shoot for. 7 starting to get plugged up?…

Is that the best way to handle the situation? There is the further level of hanshi that helps, but what about putting in a 9dan once more? not my call, so instead, what about trying to reverse the declining numbers of students overall and making more regional divisions, smaller in area but larger in numbers. That will open up more spaces for more 8dan and relieve the pressure on the beginners.

But again, not our call here in the west, and to tell the truth, not our problem, we’re not hachidan heavy over here. Except that it is our problem. We take our cue from our admiration of all things Japan and we grade according to their standards for that reason. We also take our cue from Japanese teachers who come to the west and tell us our standards aren’t the same as Japan. Our official standards? Not much change there in the last 15 years that I’ve been paying attention, the guidelines haven’t been re-written, we’re talking the unwritten rules here and folks outside Japan ought to consider whether we need to tighten those rules or not. Consider carefully why you are changing them and how you are cranking up the fail rates. When I was a grad student our department went through a review and they were told that if they were going to demand PhD level work from Master’s students they ought to give them a PhD.

This is the situation as I see it within the Kendo Federation, but a bigger question arises. The main concern of those who are out of touch with the latest standards of kendo federation iai should be to get in touch with them. Kendo iai is just that, the iai of that federation, and it has no wider application in the world. It is what the FIK countries use to give out rank that is applicable in that organization, it isn’t a worldwide standard set of iai. My friend commented that he felt he had learned a lot over the years of training but wasn’t sure that applied to his Kendo Federation iai. It might, it might not. His students are passing their gradings so he’s likely not too far off the path, but why is he on the path at all?

Koryu iai is really the place where those outside the centers of Kendo iai should be, as koryu is almost pathologically un-standardized. We can see arguments over where to put the thumb on the tsuba in two students of the same teacher. Now you get that sort of concern in seitei too, but there you have a “true way” so to speak, it’s whatever the committee in Japan decides it is. For a koryu student the answer to the question isn’t what a committee says, it’s “what will work”. Many things work, so there is room for individual learning through long and serious study on one’s own. In other words, a student out of touch with the Kendo world is out of touch with seitei but can still advance in iaido by working honestly and critically on his own koryu.

What he learns may or may not apply to seitei, but the only way to know that is to be in front of a teacher on the committee, or one who is up on the current standards. I make no claims that this is good or bad, but it is the way of seitei. There we have an answer, there we have a standard that is applied to a rank structure. There we have standards, methods and instructional techniques that can and do change over time. Without being in touch with the federation it will be difficult to keep up. Just a fact of life in the wilderness.

So why do those in the wilds practice seitei? Supply. Supply of opportunity to learn a set of iai (there are lots of seitei semnars, they’re very open to the public) and supply of instructors themselves (anyone qualified can teach seitei to anyone, it’s the nature of the beast) so those in the wilderness are likely to have learned seitei, and will have more chances for instruction due to multiple teachers drifting around the planet. It’s a lot less likely that someone will run across a koryu iai than seitei iai and those who wish to practice the art will practice what they can.

I have no conclusions to make here, it’s hard in the wilderness. My solution was to work hard to establish a group large enough to bring in instruction which we’ve done for 25 years now. It happens that all this tightening up of rank has also changed the dynamics for us, and we may once again find ourselves out in the wilderness. This time we’re in a much different situation, and as some have suggested, perhaps it’s time to “do it for ourselves”.

It’s not a wilderness if a bunch of you live there.

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