Research and Writing on Budo
By Kim Taylor
After exactly 20 years I have gone back to writing the series of books on the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryū, my koryū iaido practice. The last of the manuals on the core solo kata was published in 1994, and recently I finished a fourth book on the partner kata. I have a couple left to clean up some loose ends, but it’s a relief to be so close to the end of a 20-year project.
Why so long? Well actually the question might rather be, why the nerve to write a book on a martial art when you have a bit less than ten years’ experience? I wrote those first manuals rather early in my career. The thing is, I think the best time to write an instructional book is early. If I were to write on the solo forms of iai now, I might not ever get it done, I wouldn’t know what to leave out and I would be paralyzed trying to remember everything I wanted to pass along. No, the time to write a manual is when you know the basics but not much else; you simply write “everything” you know. The other reason for doing it young is that in your experience there’s only one correct way of doing the kata. So you see, a beginner will know what to write and will write from a confident authority. My sensei once remarked, “You barely learn a set of kata and you’ve got a book written!” Actually, I had my notes written, they were just in book form.
Iwata Norikazu said he wrote his first book on iai at around my current age, but was afraid it would not be received well. He didn’t print it for many years and re-wrote it five times. I can believe that, as I can’t look at any of my books without wanting to add to them, although in my conceit I don’t see anything vital to correct. Finally, as a high ranked person of long experience, Iwata-sensei published his book and says it was received relatively well. Everyone, of course, believes that an authority has the right to write a book, one just has to earn that authority. The fastest way to become an authority, it seems, is to write a book, sort of a circular thing.
My books were published early, and self-published at that, so I had no rejection letters from publishing houses and few criticisms from my elders since there were few of those who read English. The books sold well as there was essentially no competition, which is another reason I didn’t catch much trouble. After all it’s hard to say “you shouldn’t write a book” if you can’t point to an alternative.
So why a 20-year gap? Let’s just say I learned too much, I hit a long patch where there was too much to say and any book I wrote would be 300 pages long. It has taken many years of study and teaching to finally get back to knowing what should be written down and what should be left for the students to fill in. The partner practice manuals are short enough to be useful, around the same length as my other books, so I’m pleased enough to format them and perhaps soon they’ll be printed and available.
The last manual was another story entirely, as I went back to being a beginner. After 30 years of training, I went “back to the books” and looked at the lesser practised aspects of Muso Jikiden. I sought out what writings I could find, filled in gaps, thought and tested to work out the jujutsu of iaido.
I do expect to get into trouble for this one, but after 30 years of not much new information showing up here in the West, I’m looking forward to being corrected. Research is what we should do throughout our careers as students and instructors in the arts, and the koryū will go extinct if we don’t keep at it. The koryū iai I practise is not a defined entity like the AJKF’s Seitei Iai, it is not a single stream, it’s the delta, a meandering set of branched channels that unite and break apart. All head in the same general direction, but they are not following the same path. Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryū has no single head, it’s too big and too diverse geographically to be kept to a single method. As a result, things are added here, lost there, but not fully forgotten if the members keep dredging up the stuff that has drifted out of sight.
My project for the last year or so has been to remember something I never knew. I am doing that by using other people’s memories, books, photographs and videos. Those memories were then filtered through my own understanding and tested on my students who are remarkably tolerant of my experiments. Out of it came a manual on three sets of kata dealing with some quite simple jujutsu.
All this sounds like a bit of an advert, but trust me, it is not. It’s an attempt to show the two viewpoints on koryū Those who believe that only what you have been taught, voice to ear, by a fully licensed and elderly instructor is legitimate, will be gritting their teeth at the idea of some Westerner “making stuff up” out of bits and scraps of gossip. The other camp, which obviously includes me, says that arts can grow, understanding can come with experience, the kata can teach just by being performed and not everything in an art need be handed over from fingertip to fingertip.
Research is what every 30-year student of the art should be engaged in, and that research should be shared. Hoarding or even refusing to recognize insight into the art will surely make it small as the knowledge is lost. If you have taught for 20 years, if you have lost your teachers, what is left but thought, research and your own insight? Memory fades and changes no matter what, books endure, photographs capture and video preserves for those who come after.
The AJKF iai and jō kata are well in hand, the organization will preserve them so all we need do is attend the seminars to catch up on the details. The koryū are another matter, they are the responsibility of each teacher, each student to carry on, make our own, to grow and refine. Who else is doing it but you? When you retire, pick up those old books and your pen.
What about Kendo? Look to the statement of intent for your national organisation, see if it contains something like ours, something which says one of the aims of the organisation is to research into the art and improve the techniques. Art or sport, both will benefit from research – your research.
So this is a plea to those still reading, pick up your pen and write, or use the video on your smart phone and record what you’ve learned over the past 20 years. Don’t let me catch all the cursing by myself, instead leave something for the students of your students.