There’s a song by the late Hawaiian musician, Israel Kamakawiwoole called “Starting All Over Again.” “…Starting all over again is gonna be tough, but we’re gonna make it…” Yep, that’s what I feel like.
For several years, I didn’t have any formal connections to any iaido organization. Since the death of my main iai teacher in Japan several years ago, things got weird real fast in the home dojo, and the local kendo/iaido group that my club once happily worked with also got weird on us. Nobody wanted us all of a sudden.
For several years, I felt cast adrift. There was so much more left to learn in my iai system. Friends offered ideas to help me out of my dilemma and even opportunities to join their systems, but I was never quite satisfied with their solutions until this past December. I got back together with a fellow student of my iai teacher. He had an advanced degree, faced the same problems, and found his own solutions.
He heads his own group in his country, has several branch dojo, and developed a strong tie to a respected sensei and a different organization in Japan. I trained with him and found his technicals and his attitude to be perfectly in synch with my own evolving thoughts about iai.
Technically, though, his version of iai threw out the standard, modern “seitei” influences brought on by kendo and went back to the “koryu-ish” style of iai that our former teacher began to revert to before his death. More the better, though, since the seitei forms were imposed by the very organization that no longer allowed our group to play in their sandbox.
Philosophically, my sempai gave me ample freedom: “Whatever you want,” he said. “You can just train with me informally, we can figure out some kind of formal relationship, and as far as the organization in Japan, I’d say give it a year to think about it before making any commitment.” No pressure, no sales pitch. Just think about what is best for our group. I like that. It was the total opposite of the “my way or the highway” kind of lockstep mentality that now pervaded the local and Japan iai organizations.
But this blog isn’t about bad mouthing this or that organization as much as it’s about starting again. It’s hard, as the song goes, but sometimes it’s worth it.
From the basics to the nuances of the kata I worked with, I had to realign my physical movements. It’s the same style, but totally different. I felt like a beginner all over again, after years of doing iai. It was a humbling, frustrating experience.
But it was worth it. I felt I was finally progressing in my skill level and understanding of “true” iai. I felt I was learning better iai.
So sometimes you have to take a step way, way back in order to move forward. So it goes. If you can’t eat humble pie every now and then, you’re stuck at that one level, and however high you may think you are, you may never get much farther along in your potential. That’s the only way to keep moving, progressing.
Many, many years ago, when I was a kid starting off at the local judo club in my home town, the head of the club came in and talked about a “new” martial art that he participated in. He attended a couple of sessions and felt that he was going to focus most of his attention on learning the new style. He would continue to oversee the judo club, but from now on, the club would offer both judo and the new, mysterious art, called aikido. He wouldn’t go back. Why? He told the other judo sensei, “When you find something that’s better, why go back?”
Compare that to a different person, a different reaction. For a long time, the jo group I once trained with had no organizational connection once their teacher in Japan died. Then a new Japanese sensei appeared, willing to work with the international jo group. He paid his own way to fly to Hawaii and the US Mainland to work with the group members. I observed his teaching, and I was impressed by his teaching style, his openness and his technical ability. But there were marked differences in how he interpreted a kata and what they were doing based on the group’s original head. The differences were highlighted several times, and when it got very involved, I was honored to go from being a bystander to helping translate.
The sensei said at one point, “Well, you have to remember that Shimizu sensei was only barely five feet tall, so his stance would be like this, befitting his stature. Then your teacher, who was over six feet tall, tried to do it this way, like this. But it’s not a matter of the end of the jo being in a particular height from the ground, it has to do with it being appropriate for you OWN body. So it’s not this or that, it’s what fits you.”
Very logical. Very well-thought out. He was able to discuss all the differences and nuances of his own variations and compare them to what they were doing previously. Neither was wrong, he emphasized. But this was what such-and-such an angle, strike, or difference in stance or distancing meant. He was a treasure trove of knowledge that had been missing for a long, long time among the local group.
The head of the local jo club was impressed enough to tell his students that they should all change over to this sensei’s interpretations. That was the way he felt they would continue to progress in their understanding of jo. It would be hard, it would be different. But it would be better.
…Except for one member. He appeared agitated through the whole workshop and then blurted out his frustrations. “This is not the way X sensei taught us! This is not the right way! We should only do the way we learned from X sensei!”
Eventually, this student broke with the group, refusing to deal with the teacher and fellow dojo mates he knew for decades, and trained all by himself, taking on one or two students of his own. But cast adrift, only at a medium-high level of mastery, his techniques got tighter and tighter, and, as one fellow jo person told me, worse and worse. “It just looks bad. Like he got stuck in a rut and is just digging himself deeper and deeper, not better and better,” the acquaintance remarked. “Too bad. He’s essentially a good guy; he just got stuck in his head that only one teacher had all the answers and just refuses to change.”
To reiterate: I mean no slight to judo, or kendo, or any other budo. Everyone has to figure out what is best for them. But when you find an art that is better, or a teacher that offers more and better, why go back? I spent years as a youth in judo, karate and some aikido. They were fun, they gave me a lot of training background and understanding of competitive budo, sport budo, and endurance and free form sparring experience. But for me-and your opinion may differ, of course-when I found koryu and some excellent Chinese internal martial arts teachers, I had only so much time in a day and only so much physical strength to do the latter, and gave up the former because they seemed (for me) arts that were lacking in what I personally was seeking.
I’m not saying that you should flit from one martial art to another, sampling this and that and never settling down. And my own recent transition from one interpretation of an iai style to another is still within the style, however tremendous I think the differences are.
And since the time I focused on koryu and internal Chinese martial arts, because of interviewing many sensei for my journalistic endeavors, I found many modern budo teachers that I would have loved to have studied under in judo, aikido and karatedo, so it’s not necessarily the art that was lacking. Still, overall, for me, I had to move on.
And then, because of factors at first out of my control, I moved on again in my iai training. As I noted, it happens. Sometimes you have to move on. One has to have the flexibility of mind and spirit to do so, when necessity and circumstances call for it.