The Sensei Speak: Part 1

The Sensei Speak: Part 1
By Kim Taylor

There was beer involved. Had a rather interesting chat last evening in the bar with several sensei of several arts, specifically iaido, aikido, and a couple different lines of karate.

You can learn it all in Seitei
My own little rant actually started in class, where we were going over Seitei Jō. A question came up about shifting from one kamae to another at the start of a kata and why. We talked about it, but the bottom line is that the answer came easier for knowing a bit about koryū. The thing is, you can learn all the lessons of budo from the Seitei set of kata, or rather a sensei can teach you all you need to know from a small set of kata, or even from one. It’s all in there if the sensei knows how to teach it and how to extend the lessons through an understanding of the principles of the school.

This is just fine these days, as most of the senior sensei know what they need to know, and most of them have studied koryū for decades longer than Seitei has been around. The problem that I see down the road is that there are a lot of “rising stars” who are doing Seitei alone, or are doing little koryū along with their Seitei. I include myself in this latter group, not as a rising star of course, but as an instructor of jodo who does a little koryū. It’s just the nature of the beast in my case and I have two other koryū which aren’t all that far from jodo to broaden my theoretical understanding in general. However, I know I could teach Seitei Jō better with more study of jodo koryū.

I’m sure many folks have heard the old argument that “Seitei is contaminating koryū”, especially on the iaido side. I never bought into that one and never will. We’ve got video of pre-Seitei koryū and it looks like modern Seitei, it wasn’t contaminated unless there were time travellers. Seitei came out of those streams of koryū that look like Seitei. But what I do agree with is that kendo organization students of jodo and iaido are spending a lot of time with Seitei and with limited time available, that means the koryū time suffers. There are other factors here as well but I won’t go into them right now.

Suffice to say that Seitei students are not suffering at the moment, they are learning the lessons within Seitei because their teachers can give them. But if it comes down to Seitei alone in a generation or two, there will have to be some experimentation and expansion of the field to learn and teach the stuff that isn’t apparent in the 12 kata. In fact, if you look at the iaido Seitei, seven kata became 10, then 12, in order to “cover things that weren’t there”. Extra kata were added because they were needed to illustrate principles. In my iaikoryū there are 60-plus kata (depending on what you count as an iaikata) and it’s all related and it’s wide. I’m sure that over the years kata have been added for the very same reason – we illustrate another point with another kata, or a variation, or a one-time change in class or…

If you’ve learned the koryū you won’t have to create addenda to Seitei in the future. This is especially true for Seitei Jō which comes exclusively from one koryū. My recommendation was to practise the koryū as much as you can while keeping up the seitei. Of course, I was preaching to the choir.

Organisations, grading and more organisations
We did the first eight Seitei Jō kata and my remark at the end of the class was “that’s the Canadian curriculum” because it gets students to 3-dan which is the top jodo grade that our kendo federation can offer on its own. This of course brought on a discussion of how organisations which offer grading and then make that grading difficult will create more rather than larger organizations. Grading is what an organization is about. Not all it’s about but face it, why would an iaido or jodo student be in the kendo federation if not for the teachers and the grading. If grading is capped early (if higher grades are not offered) and if the teachers get ticked-off at that, another organization is not far away. This is something that every one of the sensei sharing the beer have seen and are seeing in their various arts. Students practice Seitei kata for several reasons, but number one must be because that’s how kendo federation members are graded. Students may start iai to learn the art, they discover their teacher is in a certain organization, and they grade accordingly. No matter the start, there is always an expectation that gradings will be offered. Students don’t mind failing a grade, but to be refused the chance to take one..? Cause for irritation for sure, so the powers that be must figure out how to provide their students with a grading. Preferably without resorting to “go to Japan and grade”.

We talked about the perceived difference between Western and Japanese students on a rank by rank basis and in none of our arts did we see a difference in the levels. In fact, if anything, Western junior students are often better than those in Japan. This is of course because of the fewer chances to grade which means more time between grades. Another reason might also be the higher requirements from Western teachers for each level. In my own aikido organization I saw this bar for junior ranks rise over a couple of decades until clubs started to leave the organisation and join others. Eventually a senior teacher from Japan reviewed the curriculum and suggested that our organisation move back to the Japanese requirements which were by that time much, much less stringent.

I’m all for skills-based grading but there’s got to be a balance between requiring skills and moving the students along to keep them involved in the organisation. It takes a lot of years of testing to come to the point where you don’t need that spur to practise and testing becomes a distraction.

This article will continue next week.

Kim Taylor
May 1, 2014