Showing posts with label rank. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rank. Show all posts

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Test Day

Shudokan Dojo, Osaka, Japan.  Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.
Last November I took a rank test in All Japan Kendo Federation Jodo. Getting ready for my test in November I spent a week in Osaka training several hours every day with my teachers. I didn’t know if I was ready for the test or not, but a week before the big day we started daily practice. By the end of the week I felt like I might have an outside chance of passing. Matsuda Shihan, Morimoto Shihan, Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei had all worked hard to drag me up to the level needed to pass the exam.

The test was held at the Shudokan Dojo on the grounds of Osaka Castle.  The dojo was reserved for the testing for the whole day. My friend Bijan and I got there early, but we still didn’t beat Iseki Sensei. He was waiting for us when we arrived. We registered, found a spot to put our gear and then got changed. There were a lot of people testing, including 12 for 4th dan and 5 for 5th dan. We started warming up and practicing on the floor where the test would be just to get used to the space and hopefully calm down a little.

As time passed before the test more and more people, both test takers and spectators, arrived. Bijan and I had lots of support. Iseki Sensei and our training partner Fujita San was there.  My friend Tadokoro Sensei came to cheer me on. I was surprised and honored that Fukuma Sensei came as well.  At 90 years of age, he is still strong and active and training jodo regularly. Everyone seemed to have at least a few supporters.

The test committee consisted of five 7th dan teachers.  To pass the test, you had to get a  passing mark from at least 3 of the 5. There would be 2 pairs demonstrating at a time in front of the judges. Each person had to demonstrate both the tachi and jo sides of 5 kata with randomly selected partners. The five kata required were different for each rank being tested for, but they had been announced months before the test, so there was plenty of time to prepare.

The test takers were called to line up by rank, and we were issued numbers to wear so the judges could identify us. The numbering also let us figure out who our partners would be for demonstrating the tachi and jo sides of the test. My partner for the demonstrating the tachi side was a tall gentleman about my size and age. Fo demonstrating the jo side, I was partnered with a small women who appeared a few years older than me. Once we figured out who we would be partnered with for each demonstration we grabbed our partners and started practicing together to get comfortable with each other.

The tall gentleman and I adjusted to each other without too much trouble. We had similar reach and power. We ran through the kata so he could get used to me as his tachi and I could adjust to his jo. The lady and I didn’t mesh as well. I was having trouble shrinking my technique to fit her, and she was having difficulty adapting to my stride.  We kept at it though and started making progress towards working well together.

Order Musings Of A Budo Bum

While we were doing that, apparently the judges and organizers were watching us, because at some point one of the organizers pulled us aside and told us they were changing the partnering  a little. The lady got paired with someone closer to her size, and I was partnered with someone closer to mine. The rule is that you take whoever they give you as a partner, but it seems they didn’t want to make adjusting to your partner too large a hurdle.

My new partner was a bit smaller than I, but quite a bit larger than the lady I had been working with. My now former partner seemed relieved not to have to work with me, and I’ll admit I was glad to work with someone who was easy to adapt myself to.  We started practicing right away because there wasn’t much time before the testing began.

Not long after this we were called to order again, and the testing began. It started with the lowest rank being tested that day, ikkyu, and would finish with the 5th dan testing. This meant I got to see everyone else test before my turn arrived.The ikkyu candidates demonstrated kihon techniques and the their designated kata. Then the shodan candidates did their designated 5 kata, both jo side and tachi side. Then all the nidan candidates.

I kept looking at the clock and wondering how we would get everything done by lunchtime. I’m sure my friends could all tell my mental state by how frequently I looked up at the clock. Bijan and I were both eager to take our tests and be done. I’m sure my blood pressure went up steadily while other people took their tests and the hands on the clock sped around.

The sandan candidates filed onto the floor, two pairs at a time at a time, and demonstrated their designated 5 kata. Then the head tachiai, the person calling out the directions for the testing called a break for lunch. I really wanted to get this over with, and now we had a hour for lunch. Because Shudokan Dojo is on the grounds of Osaka Castle, there are yakisoba and takoyaki stands next to it serving all the tourists. Those of us who had not packed hearty lunches, like me and Bijan, bought some yakisoba noodles or takoyaki squid balls and headed over to one of the castle walls where our friends and teachers and fellow dan challengers were gathered eating and sharing treats with each other.

We sat down with everyone and somehow started to relax. It was refreshing to be out of the dojo and not counting down the people ahead of us who had yet to test. For those who think that traditional Japanese budo teachers have to be tough and stoic and never smile, this would have been a shock. All our teachers and friends had brought extra treats to pass around, and everyone was laughing and joking. When the cameras came out, the smiles got wider and and laughter got louder. I’d needed this more than I knew. I’m sure I had wound myself tight watching everyone test all through the morning. The smiles and laughter gently eased a lot of the tension out of me.

After lunch it was just the 4th dan and 5th dan tests. There were twelve 4th dan candidates in 3 groups and five 5th dan candidates separated into 2 groups. When the testing started back up, they called all the 4th and 5th dan candidates together. While the 4th dan candidates lined up and walked to the test area, the 5th dan candidates lined up and sat in chairs directly in front of the test floor facing the judges on the other side of it. From here we had a great view of the 4th dan tests, though I admit I don’t remember much of what I saw at this point. I was cycling through the 5 kata that were designated for my test. The 5th dan test consisted of the ZNKR Jo Kata 8-12.

As the 4th dan challengers finished up, they moved us to ready chairs next to right of the test floor. I was the youngest in my group, so I was up first.  This meant I would demonstrate tachi and then cycle around to do the jo. My partner for this portion of the test and I walked out onto the floor as we had been instructed, arranged our extra weapons at the side and waited for the direction to begin. The first kata, Tachi Otoshi, went well I seem to recall. The opening for the next kata I very nearly blew.  To be sure I did the right kata in the right order I was focusing on the initial attack, which is a cut to the upper arm. I was launching straight into the attack when I realized I hadn’t done the awase with the jo yet. Somehow I managed to turn the premature attack into a simple matching with the jo, though I don’t believe anyone missed it what had actually happened. I’m very sure the judges all caught it.

After that big hiccup the kata went smoothly. At least, I don’t remember any other major stumbles, though there were a few minor errors of timing and spacing. Being that my partner and I had done the kata together for the first time that morning, I’m not surprised. We even got through all of Ran Ai without any mishaps. If there is a kata where things will go wrong, Ran Ai is it.  It’s several times longer than any other kata in the ZNKR syllabus, providing plenty of chances for me to screw up. Somehow, I didn’t.

My partner and I finished and waited for the tachiai’s direction to leave the floor. I carefully left as we had been taught, and picked up my jo while my partner exchanged his jo for a tachi so he could do the tachi role with the next candidate. Doing those 5 kata at that level of intensity had left me flushed, sweating and breathing hard. I worked at getting my breathing and my mind calm and relaxed. Since I wouldn’t need it again, I put my tachi down at the corner of the mat and circled back around the test floor to chairs on the right where candidates waited until it was their turn to demonstrate.  I set down and watched the next couple of demonstrations, but I don’t remember anything except that the head judge looked terribly severe.

Then it was finally my turn to demonstrate the jo side. I tried to walk out with presence and dignity. At the very least I managed to not trip over my hakama. The tachiai called out the commands to begin. My tachi partner raised his sword, and I held my position in tsune no kamae. I waited for tachi to approach and when he came in range I began my movements.  I’d go into more detail, but I think I was too busy testing to remember much. I do recall being shocked to realize while doing the zanshin on our second kata that everyone in the room was watching us.  It hadn’t occurred to me before, but this was the very last test segment of the day, and the other group of challenging for 5th dan had already finished. There was nothing else to do but watch us. Somehow I made it through the last 3 kata without any significant hiccups, even with the realization that so many people whom I look up to were watching.

We finally finished the last cut and strike of Ran AI, managed our bows and exited the floor, again, without tripping over my hakama or my feet.  It wasn’t a perfect test, but nobody looked like I had embarrassed them, and no one tried to offer me condolences, so I figured it was ok.  Pass or fail, I had already accomplished my real goal, which was to not embarrass my teachers with a weak test.

All the test challengers changed out of their hakama and got drinks. We sat around chatting and discussing the test conditions while the judges went off to discuss the tests behind closed doors. After a week of intensive preparation it was a relief to be done and not have to think about it for a while.  Even if I didn’t pass, it would be 6 months before I could try again.

Eventually the judges finished their meeting and posted the results. Somehow I had managed to present an acceptable demonstration, and the judges passed me. I was so relieved and excited it took me moment to remember to check to see if Bijan had passed as well.  He had!  All our sweat and sore muscles for the past week paid off in wonderful exhaustion. After receiving congratulations from everyone who had helped us prepare, and all our friends who had come to cheer us on, we hurried over to the officials’ desk to take care of the registration paperwork.  All that was left was to wait for the official rank certificates to be issued and mailed to us.

Now it was time for the best part of the day. Everyone we had come with gathered at a nearby restaurant and we celebrated.


A couple of weeks ago, I repeated the experience. I was in Pennsylvania for the AUSKF Jodo Shinsa. I arrived a few days before the shinsa so I could prepare myself. The day before the shinsa the group of us who were taking part all gathered together so we could review things and make sure we were all on the same page. We spent the day reviewing the kata together and preparing ourselves.

The next morning we got up and spend more time running through the kata and getting ready.  Before the test we reviewed the test procedures; the proper way to bow, the proper way to enter, and how to present ourselves with dignity. Then it was time for the actual test.

We bowed in, walked onto the floor and took our places. The test went smoothly.  I didn’t hyperventilate, or trip over myself or otherwise make myself look like a fool. There was one significant difference between this test and the one I had passed in November. This time I was judging the tests. It felt almost the same though.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Modern Musha Shugyo Part 5: Saturday With The Seventh Dans

After 2 weeks of Musha Shugyo around Japan, we all wrapped up our vacation time. Deborah and Adam made their way back to the United States, while I stayed in Japan for a couple more weeks of work. Even though I was working, I was able to get back to Shiga for Saturday keiko with Kiyama Sensei and some of the other students in his dojo. On this particular Saturday evening, there was a lively aikido class going on in the matted dojo next to the kendo and iai dojo. When you’re doing something as quiet as iaido, aikido sounds remarkably noisy.

This week the class was small. It was Kiyama Sensei, a couple of his 7th dan students, and me. It’s fun, because I get to address everyone in the room as “Sensei.”  It’s intimidating because I’ve known I. Sensei since I started iaido.  He’s one of Kiyama Sensei’s students, and he was already a 7th dan back when I started. W. Sensei got his 7th dan sometime in the last few years so he’s been around a lot longer than I have too. Both of them were dressed in nice black keikogi and hakama. It was great to see them and chat as we all got ready for practice.

Just in case you think the previous keiko was unusual, this keiko was almost exactly like the one with Deborah and Adam. Kiyama Sensei stood at the front of the dojo, called out kata, banged his bokuto on the floor, and we did it. First, he had us do the Kendo Federation Seitei Kata. These are the standardized kata created by a committee of senior members of the Kendo Federation to use for doing rank testing. The nice thing about them is that everyone does the same kata the same way, so it's possible for people who train a variety of koryu iai systems to be ranked in a comparable manner. We started with number one, “Mae” and worked our way through all 12 of the kata. Sometimes we'd repeat a kata a time or two, but we moved through them steadily.

The new spin this time was that after we had been through the 12 Seitei Kata, Kiyama Sensei asked me to demonstrate the first kata in front of everyone. This was almost as stressful as taking my last rank test a couple of years ago. These guys have all been highly ranked since before I started, and they've been watching me since my first day in the dojo. They know all my bad habits. I took a deep breath, or two, possibly three, and started in on the kata. It didn't feel too bad, but I'm know I have plenty of room for improvement. When I finished I was expecting Kiyama Sensei to detail my various weaknesses and mistakes. Instead he caught us all by surprise and asked I. Sensei and W. Sensei to give their comments. I received some insightful and subtle critique of my technique. There was plenty to work on with this alone. The way it was given to me however was very different than I’ve been accustomed to being addressed. Both teachers started out by saying that what they were talking about was something they were working on. Then they told and showed me how I could apply the lessons they are working on in their own practice to my iai. Instead of it being straight teacher to student, these were more like fellow travelers on the Way sharing their discoveries and understanding. We are all Kiyama Sensei's students, but this was a first for me.

After that we worked our way through the Omori Ryu and Hasegawa Eishin Ryu kata sets from Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. I was nervous but after the previous keiko with Kiyama Sensei most of the kata came back to me quickly. For those I didn’t remember, I had two excellent models to follow. All I had to do was just slow down a little more. Sensei had us repeat each kata several times, but we didn’t stop for any long explanations or major corrections. Practice moved forward smoothly and solidly. Kiyama Sensei would say “Again” or “Next,” the bokuto would go “Bam!” and we’d do the kata.  A few times Sensei made a comment to me or to one of the other students, but mostly we just pushed ourselves along. There is something about training in such a high quality atmosphere I can’t really describe. I learn so much just from being there. I can learn without knowing what or how I’m learning.  Everyone I see is doing the kata at a much higher level, so I can absorb ideas about the iai just from seeing them practice. The atmosphere is fabulously loaded with knowledge and skill, It would be difficult not to pick up things by osmosis.

Somewhere in there I know we stopped for a short break and some tea. In case I haven't mentioned it, tea is ubiquitous in Japan. All the vending machines are loaded with green tea, black tea, sweetened tea, genmai tea, hot and cold. We all had some tea and relaxed and talked about kata we weren't quite comfortable with, or other issues we feel we are having with our iai.

The most startling thing that occurred happened after we finished working through the Hasegawa Eishin Ryu kata. Sensei asked me to demonstrate the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu for everyone. Sensei has only taught Shinto Hatakage Ryu to a couple of people who have shown great and persistent interest in it. I’m sometimes amazed that over the decades more people haven’t asked Kiyama Sensei to teach Shinto Hatakage Ryu. This treasure sits in front of them. Sensei's teacher used to demonstrate it regularly, and Kiyama Sensei has demonstrated it occasionally at embu so everyone in the area recognizes it when they see it. Yet no one asks him to teach them. It comes to me demonstrating this for students who do beautiful Eishin Ryu, but for whatever reason never asked Sensei about this.

I demonstrated the Seiza No Bu, and then Sensei told us to do it together. So I would do the kata and these two highly ranked seniors followed me through the Seiza No Bu. I was intimidated before, but nothing like this. Now there was no room for me to goof up. On the other hand, I. Sensei and W. Sensei are so good, and have such solid fundamentals that they had no trouble picking up the general shape of each kata. Once they saw the shape, they could duplicate the kata with precision. The fundamentals don’t change. You have to have great koshi and relaxed movement.  So I demonstrated and my seniors followed along.

Kiyama sensei always wraps up keiko in the same way. He takes us back to the beginning and we do the very first kata, the one we started learning iai with. We didn't finish with any of the fancy kata from EIshin Ryu, or one of the exciting ones from the Shinto Hatakage Ryu we'd just done. We returned to the simplest, most fundamental of kata. We did the Kendo Federation’s first kata, Ippon Me Mae a couple of times to close the practice. It's the simplest kata, so if there are any issues with your fundamentals, they stand out the most when you do it. The not so subtle lesson is “Don't forget your basics.”

After that Kiyama Sensei said “Owarimasho.” We all moved closer to Sensei and the the front of the dojo where the shinzen is. One thing that I had to adjust to when I started with Sensei is that he's not very concerned with all the outward signs of rank. For iaido, we don't line up in any pre-arranged order. No one runs to the right or the left so they can sit in proper rank order. We just gather in to Sensei and sat in seiza. Sensei turned towards the shinzen and we all bowed to the kamiza. He turned around and we bowed to Sensei, which was moving for me. All my gratitude went into that bow. I won’t see Sensei again for months. Then we students turned to each other and bowed our thanks to each other for the good practice.

As we were changing, caring for our swords and folding up our hakama, Sensei came over to talk. He reminded me that, on top of the other things I. Sensei and W. Sensei had commented on, I still need to make sure my koshi is correct and that I put the power from my koshi into my movement and my cuts. He had other suggestions for I. Sensei and W. Sensei. I think they have drilled proper koshi until they’ve reached the point that they would have trouble trying to figure out how to move without good koshi.

It was great training with Sensei, and as always, saying farewell at the train station is tough. I’d much rather stick around and train with him than head to back to work. I had picked up many good points and plenty of guidance for my practice, but I really wish I could have stayed longer. Every practice is great, but the ones with Sensei are treasures. That moisture on my cheek as Sensei drove away from the station was from the rain. Really.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Sensei, Kyoshi, Hanshi, Shihan: Budo titles and how to use them, or rather, how not to use them

You see and hear a lot of different titles in Japnaese martial arts.  Unfortunately, a lot of people have little or no idea how these titles and honorifics are actually used. I’ve seen people addressed as “Smith Sensei,”  “Bob Sensei,”  “Sensei Smith,” and “Sensei Bob.”  I’ve also seen people insist on being address as “Hanshi,” “Shihan,” “Soke,” “Shidoshi” and “Shidoin.”  In Japanese budo culture, only one of these is correct.

Being introduced as Sensei is fine. Introducing yourself with a title sounds either ignorant of Japanese usage or extremely arrogant, as if you are giving yourself some sort of title. If you are introducing yourself, it's just "Peter desu" or "Lowry desu" Anything more is arrogant or foolish. Even the very senior shihan of my acquaintance just introduce themselves with their names. Their business cards will have their ranks and certificates, but that's all, no honorifics. Those are  are something other people use to talk about you, not something you use for yourself.  Certificate titles like “shihan” or “shidoin” aren’t forms of address either.

“Sensei” isn’t a title.  It’s an honorific like “Mr.” or “Mrs.”  In English it would be a little strange to introduce yourself by saying “I’m Mr. Boylan”.  It’s even stranger in Japanese where the honorific a person uses to address you depends on your age, position relative to the person addressing you, the particular situation and your relationship with them.  I have been addressed as everything from “kun” (a diminutive used to show that I’m a lot lower status than the speaker), to “san” (the general honorific used for people of relatively equal status), to “sama” (shows great respect and implies high social status).

Sensei is mildly honorific. It means teacher, and everyone who teaches gets called sensei, regardless of whether you are teaching biology or swimming or kenjutsu or skateboarding. The 80 year-old nobel prize winning physics professor and the 16 year old skateboard teacher are both sensei. As is, I should add, any doctor and any politician. Do you really think being lumped in the same category as politicians is all that wonderful?

Many people are fond of trying to find deep meaning in the characters used to write Japanese words.  I don't get too excited over how words are written in kanji. The writing was decided a thousand years ago or more, and the actual day-to-day usage has shifted since then. Much more important is how the word is actually used in Japan now than how someone decided to write it a millennium or more ago.

if you teach English in Japan "Eigo no sensei" isn't too bad a way to describe yourself. It's a job description. However, "Eigo no kyoshi" would be more in keeping with standard Japanese usage.  “Sensei” is a title used to address people.  “Kyoshi” is a title used to describe a position, like “plumber” or “teacher” in English.  Hanshi, shihan, shidoshi and shidoin are also titles to describe a position or certification.  These are not terms ever used to address someone directly.  Using them in conversation would be like walking around a university campus and addressing the instructors by their official university titles.  “Hello Professor Smith.”  “Good afternoon Assistant Professor Nakamura.”  “Good evening Adjunct Instructor Rosen.”  It’s sounds quite strange.

Another note, you don't generally say something like "I am x's sensei." You'd say "X is my student" It's one of those cultural nuances.

I can't think of anyone who puts "sensei" on their business cards, and without trying to sound pompous, I've got quite a few business cards from 8th dans, various hanshi and shihan (If you hang out in budo circles in Japan for any length of time you'll accumulate a few. It's just a normal part of the social interactions. It doesn't suggest that you actually know anyone or have any significance yourself). If you have an organizationally awarded title such as kyoshi, hanshi or shihan, you would put that title on your business card. It's like putting Ph.D. on your card. It's a title that an organization has awarded you. You aren't claiming that anyone should use it in addressing you. Usually it's added along with a listing of dan rank, such as "Nanadan, Kyoshi" or "Hachidan, Hanshi". That sort of thing. I've never seen "sensei" on a card though.

This how these honorifics and titles are used in conversation.  “Sensei” is an honorific like Mr. or Mrs., but since it’s Japanese and we’re doing Japanese arts, it has to go AFTER the person’s name.  Please show a little awareness on this and don’t tell me “This is America.”  I know it’s America, but we’re practicing Japanese arts, so get the usage right for the art you’re praticing.  If you’re doing boxing or wrestling, whatever is standard in those activities is appropriate for those activities.  If you’re doing fencing or savate, you use the forms appropriate for them.
Using honorifics and titles incorrectly is a red flag.  If someone is claiming rank or claiming to teach Japanese budo and they aren’t getting simple things like proper use of honorifics and titles right, this is a big warning sign.  It doesn’t take much to learn how these things should be used.  If someone is using them incorrectly, it suggests to me that they really don’t have any experience in Japanese budo.  

So please, show that you know as much about the etiquette of the arts as you do about the techniques, and use the titles and honorific forms of address properly.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What Is Martial Arts Rank?

I got involved in the another discussion about the real importance and value of rank again.  This conversation has been around since at least Kano Shihan establishing the now popular system using black belts and ten steps of rank (known as dan 段 in Japanese).  You’d think I’d be over this discussion, but I can’t seem to let it go by without taking another whack at it.  I’m sure there were huge discussions within the Kodokan, because the rank system there evolved over several decades before it was finally settled in the form we are all familiar with.   

The question of what does a particular rank mean can be an interesting one.  People are constantly asking “ What is a black belt?" and “What does rank really mean?”  These questions need to be looked at in connection with a couple of other questions.  Those are “What is a sensei?” and “What is a student?”  

In the world of classical Japanese martial arts, the koryu bugei, these questions don’t seem to exist.  It might be because people are not evaluated in comparison to each other’s level of attainment.  They only give scrolls that correspond with the portion of the system you have learned, and teaching licenses that lay out what you are qualified to teach.  This only leaves one question to ask if you are talking to a possible teacher, and one to ask anyone you are training with.  The question for possible teachers is “Are you licensed to teach?” and the question for training partners is “Can you do this technique or kata?”   

For me, part of the issue is that I’ve been in the iaido and koryu worlds for a long time.  I started in judo, and I still train, but I spend a lot of time in other arts.. The Kendo Federation (where I got my iai and jo dan ranks) has ranks, but there are no symbols of rank. Everyone in the room dresses alike, from the guy who just started, to the 8th dan who's been at it for 80+ years. The koryu dojo I'm in are even less about the ranks and such. Yeah, you get some paper sometimes, maybe a license, but that's pretty much it. There are even fewer signs of rank there than in the Kendo Federation. The fascination with belt colors is only in judo and karate systems, and something that is big outside Japan. In Japan, you get a black belt comparatively quickly, and all it tells people is that you are a real member of the club who can take the ukemi.

This leads back to the initial questions: “What is a sensei?” and “What is a student?”  These seem obvious.  A sensei is someone who teaches, and a student is someone who learns.  Those answers work fine in a standard school classroom setting where most questions have right and wrong answers, the kids sit in the desks and the teacher stands in front of the white board.  They don’t work so well in dojo where everyone mixes, the teacher might be in his 30s or 40s and the students are anywhere from 9 years old to 91, and even the teacher is working to improve her understanding of the art.

The student’s role seems straightforward.  The student is there to learn the art.  To do that, that the student is responsible for showing up healthy and ready to learn, with a good attitude.  The student is responsible for herself.  That was quick and easy to write, but it’s not very satisfying.  Showing up healthy is pretty simple.  Budo is practiced in close contact with other folks, so please take responsibility for yourself and don’t expose your training friends to every illness you get.  Stay on the sidelines when you’re sick.  This might not be a complete answer, but what is a sensei needs to be considered before we can go any further.

So what is a sensei, and what is she responsible for?  I’ll start by disappointing everyone who wants to break down the Japanese word 先生 and define it by it’s parts.  We don’t understand the modern meanings of English words because their original German, Greek or Latin roots meant something a thousand or two thousand years ago.  We define them based on how they are used today, and the same goes for Japanese.  In Japanese today, ”sensei” is used to address a teacher, doctor, lawyer, politician or other important person.  Most commonly, it just means teacher.  Nothing more.  It has no fancy, special, abstract or mystical meanings.  It just means teacher.  The word doesn’t help us.

In a budo dojo though, the sensei doesn’t do a lot of classical talk and chalk teaching.  Keiko in a budo dojo is a different situation from teaching an academic subject in a classroom, with different concerns, conditions and goals.  The teacher has responsibilities to the students and to the art she is teaching.  I’m partial to the modern version of koryu budo instruction rather than the military style instruction that became popular in Japanese and Okinawan during the 1930s and 1940s in militarist Japan, and which continued and was spread worldwide afterwards in gendai budo like karate.  Koryu is generally done in smaller groups, with more personal instruction and less regimentation.  This reflects what sensei is responsible for.

Sensei is responsible for students’ having a safe training environment, that should go without saying, but it doesn’t, so I say it often.  This is koryu bugei, and one significant difference I’ve found between koryu bugei thought and practice and nearly every other teaching situation I’ve seen is that in koryu bugei the sensei has no responsibility for making sure students learn anything.  Sensei is responsible for making sure students can learn if they make the effort.  If someone doesn't make any effort and doesn’t learn anything, that’s the student’s issue.

In both koryu bugei and gendai bugei, the sensei is not only responsible for teaching the student.  The budo sensei is responsible for the art as well.  They are responsible for passing on the entirety of their art to the next generation.  They are not responsible for popularizing the art and teaching to as many people as possible.  In fact, many senior members of koryu bugei systems  view trying to spread an art as being an abdication of their responsibility to the art.  Trying to spread an art quickly risks having poorly or incompletely trained people teaching and not doing a good job of teaching, and worse, corrupting the art because they don’t understand it well enough.

The lessons of any good budo system, koryu or gendai, are far more complex, and deeper than just the movements.  In addition to the physical movements there are strategies and tactics for controlling the spacing between you and your opponent.  There are techniques and concepts for controlling yourself and your mind.  Most of a budo system is beyond the physical movements, and these are the real heart of a system.  WIthout a proper understanding of these aspects, an art cannot truly be taught or learned.  The sensei’s responsibility to the ryuha includes making sure that only students with an adequate understanding of all parts of the system are teaching.  It is better to remain small and obscure and pass along the entire system than to grow into a huge, globe straddling organization that is teaching only the merest shadow of the original art.  The teacher’s responsibility to the art is greater than to any individual student.

Interestingly, it’s strange how quickly most students begin to see and understand this. The art, the system dates back generations, particularly for koryu bugei ryuha which can be more than 500 years old, but even Kodokan Judo, the exemplar of gendai budo, is over 130 years old.  The ryuha (system, school, art) has it’s own priorities and requirements and benefits. These outweigh the needs of individual students.  As students develop an understanding of the deeper nature of the ryuha’s teachings, they also understand that the ryuha will continue long after them, and that their responsibility is to learn the system to the fullest of their ability so that those who train with them and follow them will get the full system and none of it will be lost or corrupted.  

Students who begin to understand this, also begin to see and take on responsibility for maintaining the system.  Mastering the art is no longer just about gaining personal skill.  It becomes about being part of a larger structure that stretches back into history, and pushes on into the future.  As students move from beginners to experienced students to teachers licensed to teach a portion of the system and occasionally become licensed to teach the entire system, their rank isn’t about status.  It’s about responsibility.  The higher your rank, the more responsibility you have to the system.  Students who are only interested in learning the system for themselves and who don’t take responsibility for the system should be, and usually are, slowly frozen out of the school, and sometimes even simply expelled.

This is the way it should be.  As I’ve been reading more about the early days of the Kodokan and the new rank system that Jigoro Kano Shihan implemented, and it’s evolution, it becomes clear that in the early Kodokan, rank, at least at the early to middle levels, was strictly about how well you could fight.  Students were promoted when they defeated 4 people of the same rank, instead of based on how well they knew the whole of Kodokan Judo.  I suspect that this caused a not so subtle twisting of priorities amongst the growing membership of the Kodokan.  We can see the effects today in the way the International Judo Federation values competition above all else, and downplays or ignores the other 90 percent of the Kodokan syllabus.  What has happened is that in many modern budo, rank has simply become a symbol of competitive accomplishment and not a reflection of system mastery or responsibility.

This leaves me with the sad reflection that we have two different answers to the question of rank.  The first is what should rank mean?  It should be a reflection of student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it.  The second question is what does rank actually mean?  In koryu bugei, rank is still a reflection of a student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it.  In gendai budo sometimes rank is a reflection of a student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it, and sometimes it is a recognition of the student’s competitive accomplishments.  Figuring out which is which usually isn’t too difficult.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Budo Professionalism

Should budo teachers be professional?  This is a discussion that comes up with fair regularity in modern and classical budo circles.  They are a lot of people who see budo as a pure art form and equate accepting money for teaching as selling out the soul of the art.  As an art form and classical legacy, budo should remain pure and above simple economics.

My early budo background is in Kodokan Judo, which in the USA nearly has an allergy to professional instructors. There is a feeling common in Judo and many classical budo circles that being a professional budo teacher requires that you sell out the core of your budo to attract a steady stream of students to pay the bills.  The feeling is that to make money teachers have to quit teaching real budo and start doing marketing schemes and selling belts.

Then there is the example of Japan.  There are very few professional budo teachers in Japan.  Pretty much every city and town has one or more public dojo that anyone can rent for a very reasonable fee and hold a class.  Nearly every town has a judo dojo and a kendo dojo, while cities may have several (we won’t even talk about Tokyo and Osaka, which have so many judo and kendo dojo it would take years to visit them all).  Many towns and cities also have a couple of koryu being taught as well.  None of these teachers is getting paid for teaching.  The dojo communities are clubs where everyone gets together for the love of what they are doing.  It doesn’t hurt that even smaller towns will have several kendo seventh dans and the judo club in even a small town will be run by a 5th dan or higher.

But there are professional budoka in Japan.  Not a lot, but they do exist.  There are some professionals employed by the various local and regional governments to teach budo to the police. There is the wonderful example of the Kokusai Budo Daigaku or International Budo University, which is what it's name says, a 4 year university focused on the martial arts. It employs a lot of people who are professional budo teachers and researchers. There are also a few professional instructors around teaching privately. Most of the ones I'm aware of are teaching karate or aikido.

What you don't have in Japan is a martial arts industry promoting business techniques for maximizing the cash flow generated by schools with a variety of schemes to get students to pay for extra classes and training.  The budo teachers are professional teachers, not professional businessmen.  The difference is, to me, an important one.  Professional budo teachers are focused maximizing the effectiveness of their teaching of budo.  Professional businessmen focus on maximizing the profit of their business.

Every teacher I have dealt with in Japan never stops displaying professionalism.   Professionalism is defined by Miriam-Webster’s online dictionary as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well”.  It is something I have found lacking in many so-called teachers outside Japan.  There are many teachers who do show professionalism outside Japan, but there are far too many who start teaching long before they have sufficient mastery to serve as examples of good technique, much less be able to communicate what students need to do.  Just because you’ve got a colored belt doesn’t mean you’re ready to teach.

In fact, the organizations in Japan generally have a minimum rank for running your own dojo.  In the Kendo Federation it’s 5th dan.  In the Judo Federation it’s 4th dan.  Those are the minimums, but you don’t see many dojo run by people with the minimum rank.  The only time that happens is if an area doesn’t have anyone else.  Generally in the Kendo Federation, no one under 7th dan opens a dojo.  In Judo it’s usually 5th dan.  You don’t see people running out to start a dojo.  

Running a dojo is considered a serious venture that calls for lots of experience.  Outside Japan, 5th dan may sound like a high rank, but in Japan it’s not.  It barely gets you into the “serious student” category.  People spend a lot of time developing their skills to the point where they can teach.  Often even after they open their own dojo they will may the journey a couple of times a week to train with their own teacher.  I have to say, watching 7th dans working on things while an 8th dan makes corrections is a fabulous thing.  They are all working at such a high level that it’s gratifying if I can just figure out what the correction is.

Outside Japan see a lot of “teachers” who have stopped training, or at least their physical condition suggests that they aren’t training very hard.  If training and continual improvement is good enough for your students, it’s good enough for you too.  Budo teachers owe it to their students and to themselves to keep practicing, to keep training, to maintain their physical abilities and continue polishing their themselves as examples of budo.

Oddly enough, I’ve never seen an example of teachers who stop training before their bodies give out in Japan.  In fact, I see just the opposite.  Teachers whose bodies are slowly fading still pushing themselves to get out on the floor and train, working hard to slow down the fading of their skills, discover something new about timing or spacing or control and giving their students another lesson in perseverance.  It’s not about always being the best.  It’s about always giving our best.  

This is what I would like to see more of.  It’s not about having a pretty belt and a nice title.  It’s about always working to have the best for our students.  It really doesn’t matter whether you are being paid money or not.  Students are giving you a chunk of their time, their life.  If a teacher is worrying about how to extract money from their students and is constantly coming up with new programs to sell to students, that’s not professional.  If a teacher is constantly working on improving their ability to transmit the fundamentals to their students and is working every day on improving her own fundamentals, that’s a professional teacher.