Mind Your Own Training

[Originally written May 25, 2006]

The longer I’m here in the United States trying to bring people along in the koryu, the more specific examples I run into of what I call “lost in transition.” Koryu instructors trained primarily in Japan simply cannot fathom what the average Western trainee needs to know–but doesn’t–to successfully participate in these arts. Aspects of the koryu culture are frequently the direct antithesis of natural assumptions of students in the West, and unless we take the time to specifically explain and teach these details, they can begin to disappear, and the koryu are diminished. But if we can’t recognize where these knowledge gaps are, how can we address them?

It’s beginning to look, to me at least, as if it is a matter of time and experience; koryu have only been “available” in the West for the last decade or so; most of those in teaching positions outside of Japan are still relatively new to the challenge. We are having to figure things out from scratch. These discoveries need documenting, and because there are not enough minutes in a two-hour training session to cover all the technical issues of the koryu, let alone the cultural and social aspects, I have decided to compose a series of short messages to my students.

First, there’s the question of just who is authorized to instruct, give advice, or even open their mouths during training. The vertical hierarchy that is part and parcel of the koryu is one of the basic structures of Japanese society. The Japanese needn’t be told, that when they are beginners at something, they should just keep quiet, observe, and train. They understand and accept the power vested in the teacher and recognize that questions and comments can in fact be perceived as challenges to the knowledge of the teacher and/or the vitality of the ryu.

Westerners, on the other hand, are raised in an environment where, ideally at least, each of us has a voice and even the least experienced person in a given situation may well have something valuable to offer. Many of us have been taught to be helpful whenever possible and are frustrated when we see something going on that we believe we could correct. As a result, at any given practice, the teacher’s voice is but one of many that may be heard. (I’m not suggesting that all training should be conducted in absolute regimented silence–I’m focusing purely on “instruction” and “advice”).

It’s not just students who get caught up in this clash; I’ve found myself uncomfortably out of sync. As a relatively inexperienced instructor trying to improve (and figure out how to teach Americans and Bahamians), I actually find it useful when a student points out what they think might be happening when we are analyzing something amiss in another student’s technique. I know that I can’t and don’t see everything, but the instruction is my responsibility as an appointed representative of my teacher. No matter how right my students might be when they do this (and how grateful I am to be learning myself), it simply is not appropriate for a student to “help” a licensed instructor in my ryu.

I don’t know the answers to the many objections I’ve heard raised over the years to this approach (many of them I have made myself!). We don’t have equal voices and the instructional hierarchy must be respected during training. There is only one teacher in the dojo. That’s how it was during my education.

One evening–I think it was a Wednesday–we were training at the ASIJ Middle School gym. The usual suspects were gathered, about 6 of us, working under Relnick Sensei’s supervision. I had been doing Shinto Muso-ryu for about 3 or 4 years. A student, who had just been taught uchidachi for tsukizue, was sent over to me to get in some repetitions. He made his first cut, and I stopped, “Hey, what are you doing? That’s not right!” It took me at least 30 seconds to realize what I was saying and doing, and I immediately called Sensei over to find out why what I was seeing was so different from what I expected. It turns out that Sensei was refining his understanding of how the technique was to be executed, and he had taught this to my kohai. Boy was I embarrassed!

Then, there was the time some five or six years later, when I actually did have authorization to open my mouth on occasion. I was uchidachi, doing kuritsuke with a relative beginner. Things just weren’t working out right–the angle was off and the resulting leverage was wrong. I couldn’t quite figure it out. I made him do it over and over again. Suddenly, I realized that it wasn’t his problem–it was mine. I had gotten sloppy about the distancing on my cuts, and I wasn’t cutting to reach. Lesson learned? Always look to your own technique to solve difficulties with your partner; don’t assume that they are at fault.

We like being right. We need to let go of that and concentrate on training in the ryu correctly.

Mind your own training: Don’t compare/discriminate on corrections (not all are intended for you)/don’t be helpful/no competition.

Refrain from pointing out errors that other people are making. This does not, contrary to popular belief, impress the teacher. Some instructors perceive this as a questioning/challenging of their authority/competency, and no matter how you as a modern Westerner feel about it, this is an enormous no-no. Teachers frequently have very good reasons for not correcting a specific problem in an individual. Let the teacher do his or her job.

I have been told when I call a student on this (file this under excuses), that the student is just trying to figure out how he or she should be doing a particular move. At the beginning the student shouldn’t even be trying to figure it out (remember “shu” in shu, ha, ri?). The teacher is there to show and tell you what you should be doing.

Now suppose you really do just want to know if something someone else is doing is what you should be striving to emulate. First, of all, couch the question in terms of your own training or technique. Do the move for the teacher and ask if this is how he wants it done. The best course is to do it to the best of your own understanding; the alternative sets up a very unpleasant scenario. Let’s visit it. You decide you really need to know if what your sempai is doing is correct or not, so you demonstrate the move as you perceive your sempai to be doing it, and ask if the move is correct. More often than not, you’ll get “Who the hell taught you that?” Answer truthfully, and you may get at least an explanation for the difference, but most probably your teacher will ask, “Is so-and-so your teacher?”

Now most people actually do this from either a sincere desire to learn or a sincere desire to help–that’s a particularly American trait. But it causes a problem–for one thing it seems, from a teacher’s perspective, as if you are assuming some sort of equivalent status or knowledge. I know that’s not what is really going through your head, but in Japan, juniors stay pretty much silent, and the only people who instruct are designated authorized and licensed instructors. Students don’t help one another; they focus on improving their own training.

It can also interfere in the connection between the teacher and the student–the teacher personalizes the teachings. [Here begins 12/2015 continuation] A correction given to someone else is most likely not relevant for your training. We frequently “over-correct” something to get someone out of a habit, then pull them back to where they need to be. While doing the “over-correction” they may look pretty wonky. That’s okay, they are in the midst of a process. Can you successfully navigate the kata with them? If so, just train. Learn to make subtle adjustments suitable to the level of your training partner.