Kata will kill ya – Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan Iaido and Roukudan Jodo

Last iai class I had a couple of 4dans who are working toward 5. Well OK if you just got 4dan you’re working toward 5 the next day, in fact you’re working toward or you’re not working. This is like Mansfield’s lovely saying “are you practicing to practice or are you practicing to change”.

What? Kim saying work toward a grade? Right, you got me, a grade is paper, it’s administration stuff, it lets you do certain very limited things that involve more work, like sitting on grading panels and, um, signing (approving, we don’t sign any more) the paperwork (electronic tick box) for students to grade, and, um, no that’s about it.

There are no perks that I have ever found, not in our organization. No pay increase (don’t get paid), no benefit from the outsiders, “black belt” is all you need for doing a class in most places and for most students to believe you are a teacher. Above “black belt” is just bragging rights within the organization and if you’re bragging about your rank you’re probably missing the point somewhere.

No, I’m talking about your ability, which is supposed to be connected to your grade level. At certain ranks you are supposed to be able to show certain things to the panel which indicate certain levels of ability or knowledge. Before we had paper grades Ohmi sensei used to tell us “get on the floor and show them your grade”.

So I take it back, or restate it I suppose, you really should not be working toward passing a grade. A test is just a “sort of” thing at the best of times, a “test”, an approximation to reality, and if other things come into the test, like “do we really need another hanshi in Tokyo?” then it becomes something other than a true sign of ability.

At low ranks, the ones that are insignificant, you can be fairly sure you are being judged on your apparent ability only. Apparent because we’re not supposed to have a list of names and dojo in front of us as judges, your name tags are taped over and we have a list to refer to? Nah, we’re judging you on what you do right there, right now, no matter who you are, so it’s the apparent ability, the ability you show at the test that is being judged. Do much better in class with nobody watching, too bad. Do much worse in class every day but “come up to” the level in the test? Way much more “too bad”. You fooled the judges.

To get back to the point, I had two people who were working toward the skill level that is represented by 5dan. Now, I have been told repeatedly by those from Japan that 5dan is a “big deal” which, I’m not sure, may be code for “other things come into consideration”, like the number of 5dans in Tokyo. Again, I’m going to ignore the “other things” which are to do with paper, with work, with administration duties, and not ability to show a certain level of iai.

You should be working toward ability. What sort of mileposts do we use? The ranks, or rather the test requirements. So here we are in class and I’m off on some oblique angle and I’m getting grief about “why are you not letting me just do the kata”.

Because that’s 3dan, that’s why, because 3dan is after three or four years (a long time, time enough to get a University degree) and only involves 12 short kata and if you haven’t learned them by then, if you haven’t, as the test requirements say, shown “correct nuki tsuki, kiri tsuke, chiburi and noto” then you haven’t passed 3dan, let alone 4. Who is still trying to teach you how to do the kata when you’ve got 4dan? How did you buy into that trap? Stop, you know how to do it, you can read the book, just do it and stop trying to polish a brick.

That’s what that means, no amount of polishing a brick will ever make a mirror.

What do you think happens after you learn the kata? You keep learning them? You keep showing finer and finer detail until you hit hanshi where your iaido is the most exact, the most controlled, the most standardized, the most perfect, the most boring iaido on the planet?

I keep raging on about 5dan being the last technical grade, but at 3dan you’re supposed to know all 12 kata really well, like I name one and you do it. Do koryu kata come into this? Are you going to tell me that after 3dan you now have to learn the koryu? No, you have to show a kata or two, so let’s say 14 kata instead of 12. OOOoo hard! Is that it? No wonder people drop out.

Remember numerous people saying that hanshi is the top corner of the room, 7dan half way down, 6 half way down from that, all the way down to ikkyu which is about a mm off the floor? Remember how you believed that as a mukyu? Remember the day a few years later when you watched that hanshi fail to do a single kata in the seminar? Remember that 7dan who wobbled and bobbled and couldn’t cut straight? Remember thinking back to the wall and the notches there?

Big secret, only young, genki types think it’s a constant process of polishing the technique, that a hanshi is two times as good at showing the kata as a hachidan kyoshi. Maybe you have to demonstrate them in class, maybe not, maybe you’ve got a hot 6dan to demonstrate them for you. At some point, age is going to start chewing into your strength, your balance, your technical perfection kids. It really is. That RSI in your shoulder doesn’t go away when you get your 6dan, it goes away when you learn not to do the latest fashion in nuki tsuke that is loosening and irritating your joints.

Beyond 3dan you have to show something other than “I know how the kata goes”. Beyond 5dan you have to show things beyond what’s written down in the book. What can you write down? This foot goes there, this hand stops here, cut angle is so many degrees from vertical.

Nah, that’s 3dan. You spend another seven years (provided you find someplace to take 4 and 5dan tests, more if your country can’t offer them) tweaking the angles? You do not. There are other words in the book, like metsuke and kaso tekki and jo ha kyu. At least I think there are, I’m pretty sure. These are the things you work on beyond 3dan because these are the tweaks you need. These are the droids you seek.

If, at 5dan you’re still asking questions like “what angle for the first cut of sanpogiri does the panel want to see” you’re working toward the test, but you do, by that very question, indicate some 5dan skill. At 5dan you should be able to show any damned angle of cut the panel wants to see, and more important, you should not care what that angle is. You should not be attached to this or that angle, just cut where you need to cut.

If you think there is one way to do a kata, one correct way, and you think that kata would work “on the field of honour”, you will die. Go do some kendo and see how much use kata is to you there.

5dan is about leaving the kata behind, that’s why they tell us judges to look in the book to judge a 5dan, it means everything in the book is fair game, the book has been absorbed and is ready to be thrown in the gutter. It means going beyond the book from that moment on. The bare minimum standard of 5dan is “the book” anything beyond that, is what’s not in the book, plus the book (which you now “own” in your body).

Have you ever heard two different instructors tell you two different angles of a cut? Amazing isn’t it? And this stuff is supposed to be standard. If the angle is written down in the book you can argue and sensei is going to say, “oh yes, that’s the angle”, and walk away.

Yay you won! You remembered the book better than sensei, you bested him.

Only he’s across the room teaching someone else. What’s that all about?

Do you know?

So on Thursday we spent some time in class breaking the kata, changing them, trying to figure out what “metsuke” is beyond “the direction in which you point your unfocused eyeballs after you have turned and cut into the air”. We messed around with Sanpogiri and walked right through the two bodyguards if they didn’t make a move to attack, if they didn’t attack for real, we just walked up to the third guy and cut him down. Right past the other two because they aren’t there if they aren’t attacking. So sensei, is that timing 1-2,3 or 1,2-3? Well no, it’s 1. It’s always 1, eyes on the prize kid.

We broke shihogiri by sensei yelling “close” or “far” and having to cut that person at no step or an extra step.

If you can’t do that by your 5dan test, by ten years, if you can’t add in and take out bits and pieces of the 12 kata at need, on demand, you’ve been practicing to practice haven’t you? Ten years. OK yes, “seitei is a mix-match of different kata so how can you combine them, they came from different schools”.

3dan statement. A 5dan will see how to combine them because a 5dan will have “made them his own”, a 5dan should show the panel “his iai” as Ohmi sensei taught me. If you go into a 5dan test with the intent to show the panel what they want to see, you’re doing a 3dan test.

SOOOOOOooooooo much more that, if you’re being asked to show this or that twitch at a 7dan test. “Change this angle, we want to see that.” “Sure, you say, 5dan stuff, no problem but…. really?”

I’m talking about ability level, not tests for paper which can involve other things than what’s in the judging manual. Like “oh in Japan they only pass 2% of 7dans in Tokyo”. If that translates to the panel passing one person in every set of 5 walking out to challenge, that’s not your problem, it’s theirs. Just treat it like the tournament it is.

Instead, you need to understand what you are working on now, you can’t practice to change if you don’t know what change you’re after.

Change? What change? This stuff is standard, there’s no change!


Practice to practice and your iaido gets prettier and prettier. You don’t need me to do that, you don’t need any sensei, just go practice.

Otherwise, take an extra step when I yell “far”. Draw and defend yourself if I clap my hands randomly in class. We used to do this stuff all the time, what happened to me that I’m teaching to the 3dan test? Oh, wait, right, up to now that’s where we were headed. Now we’ve graduated and are heading for 5dan. 4dan is half way there, so time to change the process from refining what a 3dan is, to reaching toward what a 5dan is.

You know that old saying about trusting your sensei? It doesn’t apply to beginners being asked to build sensei’s deck, it applies when you start to know stuff, and sensei says you don’t know anything, you’re just waving a stick in the air. That’s when you have to trust sensei and swollow your pride. Pride that is entirely justified for your current state.

Maybe if we learn that trust at 4dan and learn what a 4dan is, the phase transition to a 6dan will be understandable when you get there.

Phase transition?

Phase transitions are unexpected, something different, something outside of previous experience.

1-3dan, ice. 3-4, rigid ice melts to flowy water. That’s why we spent some time with the tanren bo, keep it moving or hurt yourself, flow. That’s why we did Sanpogiri all the way down the dojo, cut-cut-cut-repeat for as many times as you can manage, don’t stop moving the tip, flow. We’re learning what it means to go from ice to water.

4-5, water. 5-6 water becomes gas. Now you are full of hot air and all puffed up. That continues from 6-8dan if you aren’t careful. We’ll talk again 5 years from your 5dan test OK? Or less if you’ve caught on by then and insist on practicing to change.

6-forever, gas. Water may take any shape required, Musashi told us that, it fits any container (situation) it can be big or small, drop from a leaf or an ocean. But a gas? A gas can get places water can’t. Gas can get through containers that will hold water.

I used to love it when people came into my lab and said “hey that’s hydrogen, why don’t you have a fan in case it leaks”. Um, because hydrogen will go right through the cement block walls?

Try to contain a gas, try to force it into a certain shape and you’ll find it behind you.

Trust me.

Kim Taylor
July 21, 2018

28 Oct 2017 Kenshokan Koryu Kenkyukai!!

Check out the seminars below for the rest of 2018 These are all confirmed.

August 17-19 Calgary/Vancouver Jodo/Iaido seminar and grading
September 1-3 Tombo dojo Niten and Kage seminar, also Montreal intro to jodo seminar
September 8-9 Ueda sensei in Santiago Jodo seminar and grading
September 22-23 Kurogo sensei in Mississauga koryu Jodo seminar
September 29-30 Fredericton iaido and jodo seminar and grading
November 23-25 Mansfield Sensei, Mississauga, Jodo seminar and grading
December 1 Etobicoke Iaido grading

iaito, bokuto, bokken, jo, shinken, karate and judo uniforms, books, videos and other supplies for…

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