Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sei Do Kai visits Japan

Wow, been a while, hasn't it? The only interesting thing that happened in the last few months was a good one, though: a visit to Japan by Kim Taylor, (who once swore, I do believe, that he'd never come to Japan!) and the other members of the Sei Do Kai.
The Sei Do Kai is in Guelph, but various members have graduated and gone on to other cities where they teach and operate dojo. Dave Green, Ed Chart, and Miki Takashima are up in Ottawa, and Eric Tribe is in Thunder Bay. Doug Martin also came down from Thunder Bay, and Chris Jarvie joined from the Ottawa dojo. Rounding out the gang was Pamela Morgan, from the Guelph Sei Do Kai.
I haven't seen a lot of these folks in quite a while, so I was wondering what the first meeting would be like after such a long absence. I should have guessed: they were exhausted from their flight, a bit overwhelmed by Tokyo (I'm guessing), but overall, happy to have arrived and (again, I'm guessing) happy to see me.
A jodo practice had already been scheduled at the Shimbun Dojo, and the week before, one of the Japanese members had asked me, "So, Jeff-san, are all the other visitors as big as you?" (I'm about 6'4" or 193 cm). I thought about it and said, "Yeah, pretty much!" They're not a small group, that's for sure. When I showed up at the station, sure enough, the first thought that crossed my mind was "What's with all the absurdly large foreigners?" and a split second later I thought, "Oh, those are my friends!"
After a quick trip to the hotel followed by an absurdly-long check-in process that had everyone asking "Is everything in Japan this difficult and slow?" we were off to grab a bite to eat. My memory is already foggy, but I think we went to a conveyor-belt sushi place - very Japanese, very cheap, and everyone can find something they like. Most importantly, they have cheap beer!
I had to work while everyone was visiting (including, unbelievably, the Sunday and Monday smack dab in the middle of Golden Week) but I did manage to attend some practices together with everyone. I was embarrassed by my lack of progress in both jodo and iaido, but particularly in iai. I have resolved to work harder!
Meanwhile, it was great to have Dave Green and Kim Taylor giving me plenty of instruction (in English, for once) about how to fix my cut. I find that Japanese teachers give you a point, or maybe two, and then leave you to work on it. That's fair enough, and it's certainly not a criticism, but I was so grateful to have Kim and Dave look at my cut, and offer suggestion after suggestion. "Try it like this; okay, what you're doing is this. Keep this in mind..." If one thing wasn't working (because I wasn't getting it) they gave me another perspective. My Japanese teachers would have already given up by that point.
[Lengthy aside:]
Which brings me to an observation: in the West, we tend to be more analytical about iaido. I don't know if this is a product of the iaido culture in Japan (how our Japanese teachers were themselves taught, e.g., "Don't ask too many questions, just do it like I do it") versus the iaido culture abroad, or whether this is the by-product of some deeper cultural differences, such as a tendency towards holistic thinking in Japan, versus a tendency towards analytical thinking in the West. I dunno. I've read snippets out of books comparing the "Asian mind" and the "Western mind" and while they were quite interesting, I'm really not convinced, on a gut level, that there is a difference. Perhaps more importantly, I sometimes wonder, if there is in fact a difference, whether we should be building it up, or breaking it down. I guess I get tired of Japanese people telling me, "Oh, you just think that because you're a foreigner!"
[Aside finished. Thanks for indulging me.]
Anyway, it was a great visit and I'm happy to say that, although I didn't get too many pictures, it was because I was actually practicing for a change. Here are a few good ones that I did get.

Hell freezes over: Kim doing iaido in Japan

Eric, showing nice zanshin

Back row (l-r): Pam, Chris, Ed, Jeff, Eric, Dave, Doug, Kim, Miki, and Adrian (a regular member of Hatakenaka Sensei's dojo);
the young folks are members of the Waseda University iaido club

It was great to see everyone again, especially in Japan. I regret not being able to go with them on the rest of their tour (a couple days at the Kyoto Taikai, followed by Jodo training in Fukuoka) but alas, I had to work. I hope they will all make it back again at some point! Hopefully see you all in Canada, in August ...


Blogger ted said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:23 PM  
Blogger ted said...

This post has me really bummed that I skipped the Kyoto Taikai this year. It's funny, when I lived in Totori, I was in Kyoto every Golden Week. Now that I actually live in Kyoto, I'm always out of town.

Regarding your aside, if you'll let me (over-) generalize. It seems to me it's the old group think vs. Western individualism cliche. A Japanese instructor expects you to do it like him, so that you'll harmonize with what evryone else is doing, and had always done. The Western mind wants to analyze, to figure it out in a way specific to you. In Japan, you become the kata; in the West, the kata becomes you.

4:25 PM  
Blogger ted said...

In the dead horse beating category:
Soon after writing my last comment, I came across this in a book I was reading.

"Westerners ask 'Why?' japanese ask 'How?'"

5:01 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Hi Ted,

As always, thanks for your comments. Nice to hear from you! I hope you'll send me a private e-mail and keep me up-to-date with how you're doing.
Regarding your comment: I loved the quote. I'll be thinking about it for a while.
I sometimes meet Japanese teachers who are technically extremely proficient, but can't adjust what they do, and really can't explain it. This suggests that they have just been following one way for a long time, and have hammered their form into shape over years and years.
On the other hand, someone like Kim Taylor is able to do a kata in 4 or 5 different ways, and tell you for each, "The rationale behind doing it this way is this, but you can also do it like this..." I think this reflects a Western, analytic, "scientific" approach to iai.
By the same token, I think there definitely are some Japanese teachers (Haruna Sensei comes to mind) who teach the same way. Haruna Sensei started iai fairly late in life (late 40's?) but rose through the ranks quite quickly, possibly because he actively analyzed iaido, rather than passively "accepting" it.
This is not to say that one method is better than another, though... just maybe that one is more efficient. I think we're pretty hung-up on efficiency in the West.
Anyway, enough random nonsense.

6:26 PM  

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