Thursday, October 29, 2009

Notes from a cluttered mind

I was reading over my own Blog entries from last year (what kind of sicko does that, anyway?) when I noticed my entry about the All-Japan Iaido Tournament, and also the A-J Jodo Tournament. I started thinking, "Yeah, those should be coming up any time now ..." and checked the All-Japan Kendo Federation webpage. They had both come and gone!

The Iaido tournament took place in Nagasaki this year. As I lived in Nagasaki-ken from 2000 - 2002, I really wanted to go and see the tournament. All the Sensei I had met around Kyushu were sure to be there. Plus, the Oita team this year was headed up by 7th-dan Ishii Toyozumi, instead of the man who has become kind of the "regular" Oita delegate, Kosaka Sensei. Ishii Sensei is a wonderful guy who taught me many times, and I was really interested to see how his dynamic, sharp style would do in competition. (He also does Niten Ichi Ryu and Sekiguchi Ryu iai.) Not very well, it turns out! The Oita team did quite poorly, although it may be that they just ran into tough competition early on, as frequently happens in elimination tournaments like this.

Results of the tournament from the ZNKR website:

5th dan
Winner: Hirose (Nagasaki)
2nd: Imai (Niigata)
3rd: Harada (Kanagawa) and somebody whose name I can't read (>_<) from Chiba.

6th dan
Winner: Yamazaki (Shizuoka - wonder if he is related to 8th dan Yamazaki Sensei?)
2nd: Takagi (Nagasaki)
3rd: Kamei (Kochi) and Nakagawa (Yamagata)

7th dan
Winner: Morishima (Kanagawa)
2nd: Tsukimi (Nagasaki)
3rd: Akiba (Chiba) and Shimamura (Tochigi)

This was, I think, the first time that Morishima has won the 7th dan division, but it was only a matter of time, as he has been coming in 2nd or 3rd place for years now. Given that he's only - what? - 39 or something, he has a lot of good years left in him, too. Definitely a man to watch.

With 2 second place finishes and a first, Nagasaki easily won in the team competition. This is not surprising as they were the host prefecture. Perennially strong Kanagawa and Chiba both did well. What was a bit surprising was that Niigata came in 3rd, I believe. They have not been particularly strong in the past but they may have some strong leadership there; I need to find out more, I guess. Good for them, in any case.

Meanwhile, the Jodo tournament had taken place in Kanagawa over a week before. To my knowledge, nobody in my dojo mentioned it to me, which made me feel a bit neglected. (Being a foreigner in Japan is sometimes a lose-lose situation, especially when you've got an attitude problem like me. When people treat you with extra consideration, you get your back up and say, "I'm not a child! Don't treat me like I'm so helpless!" On the other hand, if people don't help you, you do dumb things like missing events that are common knowledge to everybody else, and then go around saying, "Thanks for not telling me, you jerks!")

So basically, I hate that I am disorganized, but I guess I don't hate it enough to become organized. I wish I spoke better Japanese, but I don't seem to want it enough to put in the hours of study required. I wish I was better at iaido and jodo but ... oh, ouch.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Excuses, and Inflicting Pain

Just a quick post, as a kind of addendum to the last post.

Kim Taylor has a martial arts Blog, and he usually says things better, or at least gets to the point quicker, than I do. In his Oct. 20, 2009 edition, he says:

...some folks just can't be taught physically. The student who tells you why
they can't do some movement or other, the one who fixes it while you're looking
at them and then drops right back into the same old habits, the one who looks at
you blankly, as if to say "I'm doing it that way, what's wrong with you?" and
the one who tries, really, really tries but never gets it.

I have been all of the above at one point or another. In fact, I am one or two of them right now.

I have a problem with my cut. I'm trying to make my cuts as large as I can, but in doing so, I have developed a bad habit of moving through "dead hand" when I am making contact with kasso-teki's forehead. In other words, my wrists are over-extended at the point of impact, which is weak. Then, I pull my hands into my belly at the end of the cut, resulting in a kind of wobble. The sword should stop firmly at the end, but mine doesn't. It does a little one-two bounce.

My teacher has tried to get me to fix this problem. When he first mentioned it, I was "the one who looks at you blankly, as if to say 'I'm doing it that way, what's wrong with you?'" I didn't think I was doing anything wrong. When it became obvious that I was, in fact, doing it that way, my next reaction was to think, "But I've seen lots of people do it this way! Iaido champions do it this way!" (Which is true, actually; if you slow down video of many of the frequent iaido taikai winners, they cut the way I do, which is neither here nor there; I had been told to fix something, and I shouldn't be denying the problem, or evading it.)

The next week, I came back and was cutting the same way. I had become "the one who fixes it while you're looking at them and then drops right back into the same old habits". Well, I hadn't really fixed it to begin with, actually. The best I could manage was to do 2 or 3 good cuts out of 10, while my teacher stood there saying, "No ... no ... okay ... no ... nope ... Yes! ... no ... no ..." Eventually he got tired and wandered away, to our mutual relief.

Last week, I went to practice and was still cutting the same way. Sensei was exasperated and said, "Even though I tell you what you're doing wrong, you just keep doing the same thing." My defences rose up and I tried to explain why I couldn't cut properly. I tried to blame the weight of my sword (it's a 2.7, but not all that heavy, really) and the unusually thin tsuka it came with, which is hard to grip firmly with the left hand. I had become "the student who tells you why they can't do some movement or other".

A few days later I was at jodo practice. During a break, I took a bokuto and began doing some swings in front of a mirror. I was doing the same thing with the bokuto! I couldn't blame my strange cutting on the weight of my iaito, or its thin tsuka. (Damn!) I was finally able to fix my cut when swinging the bokuto, but it remains to be seen whether it will translate over into my iai.

Regarding my last post on self-improvement, my friend Paul had this to say:
One thing that you didn't really talk about in the "Self-Development" training
reason was about partner training, especially when you have to inflict pain
and get it inflicted on you in turn (Aikido is a good example, but there are
many painful techniques, and errors for that matter, in Jodo and Kenjutsu
kata). You talked about the pain of pushing yourself, which is a very
important factor, but I think that partner work teaches a lot about empathy and
compassion and appreciation, things that are very beneficial in life both inside
and outside of the dojo.
And in a later mail:
I have always found that the kids in the Judo clubs at the high schools I've
been at were a lot nicer than the kids in the Kendo Clubs. Not a very
scientific comparison, but there might be something to it. While Kendo
does hurt, it's more because you let yourself get hit, [i.e., failed to prevent
yourself from getting hit, by dodging, blocking, etc.
] than you allowed your
partner to inflict pain in order to better understand a technique.
Great points, Paul, and thanks for letting me post them.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Martial Arts and Self-Improvement - A Self-Fulfilling Goal?

I'm writing this a bit reluctantly. It's the next item on the "Why practice sword arts" list, but it's probably the hardest one to tackle. "Self-improvement" is difficult to define. We have to define a "good person" before we can decide what it means to be a "better person", and the first one has eluded philosophers for centuries. We can't really measure self-improvement either, except subjectively, and there is certainly no way to prove if it has happened.
Of course, we all have anecdotal evidence. "Before I started martial arts, I was spineless, cowardly, weak, selfish, and morally bankrupt. Now, 20 years later, I am somewhat less so." Not exactly scientific, is it? How much did martial arts have to do with it, and how much of it was merely "growing up" a bit? We each have to answer that one for ourselves.
I want to take a look at Kendo. Kendo is an art that is practiced mostly for the purpose of self-improvement. Nobody is out there taking kendo for self-defence. And as I said before, it's good exercise, but it's a lot easier to do 40 minutes on a stairmaster while watching TV, than to go to the dojo and get whupped for 2 hours twice a week. Which leaves the idea of doing it because it makes you a better person. According to the All-Japan Kendo Federation;

The concept of Kendo is: To discipline the human character through the
application of the principles of the katana.
The purpose of practicing Kendo is:
To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
To forever pursue the cultivation of one's self,
And through correct and rigid training, to strive for improvement in the
art of Kendo.

Therefore from kendo we hope to
Proper ways to interact with others.
Continuous concentration as
we aspire and reach towards goals.
Total commitment to what is right.
How to become contributing members of society.

Kendo is hard. I can definitely agree that it molds your body while providing you with mental toughness and powers of concentration. By adhering to strict etiquette, it teaches courtesy. At higher levels, you must become aware of your opponent/partner's intentions, which makes you sensitive to others. But what about the other points? "Total commitment to what is right?" How does that happen?

I think this is kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. People come to kendo because they are already interested in self-improvement - "becoming a better person" - which means that they are already thinking about what it means to be a "good person". Kendo attracts and keeps ethical people who are receptive to these ideas. It's kind of like church, particularly in this day and age when fewer and fewer people are raised with religion. The people who drift back to church are the people who are interested in questions of morality, right and wrong, good and evil. Even if they don't agree with every tenet of religious teaching, they find themselves part of a group of like-minded people.

Next, telling people "By doing kendo, you can make yourself into a better person" is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kendo provides people with a specific type of social interaction, with juniors and seniors, and rights, and responsibilities, over a backdrop of physical challenges and pain. The way you cope with the pain, while still maintaining your responsibilities, teaches you something which, because you've been made aware of the possibility, you then extend to your life outside the dojo.

If you practiced another activity - let's say bowling - with the same kind of attitude as kendo or kyudo or iaido, I think the results would be the same. "Clear your mind before you bowl. Extend your ki towards the pins. Bow to the pins slightly, acknowledging that they are one with you. Begin your approach and release the ball in one fluid motion ..." I think the self-consciousness is the important part: finishing a practice, feeling exhausted, and asking yourself, "Why did I put myself through that? Is it making me a better person?" We look for changes in ourselves, signs of improvement, and it is that process that changes us.

Is there anything inherently beneficial about martial arts? I don't think so, any more than there is something inherently beneficial about waking up on Sunday morning and singing hymns with a bunch of other folks in a building somewhere. But if we are self-conscious that we are doing it for a reason, and that reason is that we want to become a better person, then the potential for improvement is there.