A Piece of Rice Paper

In order to be good at anything, one must do that thing. Malcolm Gladwell has supported and promoted the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. The concept has come under fire and the research has been questioned, but we can only become good at something by doing it. As a rule, the more we do something, the better we become at it.  There are exceptions on both sides, but in general the more we practice the better we become.  As an addition to this, Ted Williams, the last Major League Baseball player to hit over .400, said, “Perfect practice makes perfect,” meaning that practice makes permanent, and if one practices incorrectly, one cannot be perfect no matter how many hours one puts in.

As a teacher in public schools, I see many students who don’t do the things that they’re supposed to be doing in order to master the skill. Part of the problem is that they’re interested in things other than the skills being taught in public schools. I know I was! With Iaido, Aikido, or any other martial art, it is different. We willingly walk through the door and pay dues, and bow in to the class, yet for many, class only happens when Sensei is watching. Some people want Sensei to watch and constantly talk to them and give them tips and pointers, and some even want corrections. This is not the way of training though. One must watch and copy what he sees and then try and do it exactly as it was done. Not once, not twice, but 10,000 times with or without Sensei watching.  Please, keep training.

The Old and The New

The inspiration for Iaido is said to have come to Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu during the Nara or Heian period.  Shigenobu is also said to have been born in 1549 in Sagami, an area controlled by the Odawara Hojo but Sagami was adjacent to Kai, the home of Lord Takeda Shingen(1521-1573), a powerful daimyo set on becoming shogun even though death claimed him before he was able to succeed.  Shigenobu’s life was certainly marked by civil unrest.  After Shingen’s death, the Odawara Hojo were dissolved by Toyotomi Hideoshi after the siege of Odawara.  Sagami would subsequently come under the control of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the eventual shogun of Japan who’s family would rule Japan for over 200 years until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.  Much of what is known about Shigenobu’s life is interwoven with legend, however, he came of age during a time when control over his home changed three times.  Out of necessity for survival the inspiration for Iaido came and due to the relative peace in Japan after he was forty, Shigenobu was able to travel, test his skill, build his reputation, and acquire disciples.  Shigenobu’s time was a time of civil war in Japan and the success of a military and its daimyo(feudal lord) depended upon the ability to feed and supply the largest army, but also depended upon any technical advantage developed and the ability to maintain this advantage through secrecy.

If we come to present day, no one uses swords for combat.  State military secrets are still guarded closely using varying levels of security clearance aimed at mitigating espionage, but all Koryu, “Old Style”, have elements of secrecy that are foundational in the transmission of the art.  Explicit in Muso Shinden Ryu are Shoden, “Beginning Level/Tradition”, Chuden, “Middle Level/Tradition”, and Okuden, “Hidden Level/Tradition”.  In today’s climate, traditional koryu struggles for survival against one of its pillars of survival, secrecy.  In order for koryu to survive, it must be popularized, and once it’s popularized, it loses its secrecy and one of its elements of efficacy, surprise.

The new way is marketing, getting leads for new students, building a dojo that appeals to customers, tracking website analytics to determine how much traffic comes to the website and how long the visitors stay in the website.  The new way is totally opposite from the old where skilled teachers lived in obscurity only to be found by students who sought out the path.  The teacher scolded and refused to teach them, and only after demonstrating dedication to the art did the teacher accept the student.  Instead of a dojo in the middle of a strip mall selected for its favorable demographics with a large illuminated sign pronouncing the name to the world in neon, the dojo was down an alley with a fence and gate guarding the entrance, and the small wooden sign overgrown by bamboo and other greenery sprouting from within the garden. Instead of hundreds of students, there were only a few.  Instead of being rich, “successful”, the teacher struggled to survive barely making ends meet and put everything into the dojo and the students.  The new teacher wants to be recognized, travel across the globe and have hundreds attend seminars.  The old teacher just wants to be left alone to teach.  The new teacher sells, sells, sells; the old teacher just teaches.

The old will die unless it is passed on and infused with some new.  The old student worked to learn the art and support the teacher.  The old student brought food, cleaned sensei’s house, massaged sensei’s muscles so it was easier for sensei to teach.  The old student was devoted to the teacher.  What does a new student look like?  O negai shimasu?

Infinite Lessons

From a Western perspective, a teacher and an instructor are synonymous. These words are used interchangeably when referencing someone from whom we are learning. From a Japanese perspective these words are very different in their connotation. It is common in modern, standards-based education to think and plan lessons around the facilitation of learners acquiring skills, but there are some current thoughts around how teachers develop a student’s character as well. It is in this difference that the subtlety between instructor and teacher can be differentiated.

An instructor is focused on skill acquisition, level of proficiency, and transfer of that skill.  All lessons and shifts in instructional methods are based on the feedback produced by the learners on some form of assessment.  Modifications are made in an effort to increase proficiency levels to the point of being able to transfer the learning to a new context and thus achieve mastery.  In Japanese, it is referred to as “Shu-Ha-Ri”. “Forming-Breaking form-Releasing form.” The learner copies the form to create the correct form, then begins to break out of the form to be able to put the form back in a variety of contexts.  From an instructor’s perspective in Muso Shinden Ryu, there are clear steps taken through the Shoden level and developed before instructing a student Chuden, and then eventually Okuden.  Though technical proficiency is a goal for both instructors and teachers, it is here that they begin to diverge as the role of the instructor is complete.

A teacher’s lessons go beyond the skill, they lead to the way, or “Do”.  Furuya Sensei wrote about this in his book Kodo: Ancient Ways (1996).  He writes that after releasing form, the next stage is called “ku” or “emptiness”.  This concept was popularized in Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda when the character Po opens the Dragon scroll and finds that the scroll is blank, meaning that there are no traces of form in mastery.  Many would interpret the blank scroll as nothing there, but another interpretation is that everything is there.  The blank scroll has no boundaries, it is infinite; our learning is also infinite as long as we keep training.  O negai shimasu?

Futile System

I remember one day asking sensei why he trained in Aikido and Iaido. His response was, “How dare you ask me this question!” My intent was to discover if the same reasons for his devotion to the art were the same as mine, but what I have come to understand is that there is only one reason to study and train in Iaido and that is reason is because I must.

No one carries swords anymore; it would be a relatively useless endeavor to do so. One isn’t going to need to cut anything that would require around twenty-eight inches of sharpened steel in order to accomplish the task. A pocket knife would suffice for most daily cutting needs, or perhaps a pair of scissors to open those pesky cereal bags evenly. No one carries a sword anymore.

There are far more effective ways to defend oneself than using a sword. All we have to do is study the way the introduction of firearms to the island nation of Japan totally changed warfare and the use of swords for combat in order to determine their value for combat and defense. It wasn’t the sword’s unique self-defense qualities that led to the ban on wearing swords in 1876 as part of the Meiji Restoration. There are far more effective ways to defend oneself than using a sword.

Studying and teaching Iaido won’t make one rich. Rent and mortgages are expensive. Insurance to protect against litigious learners and the costs of uniforms, swords, cleaning kits, sageo, and other routine maintenance of training adds up to losing money or breaking even. Studying and teaching Iaido won’t make one rich.

I study and practice Iaido because I must. Try to convince a flower not to open. Try to resist the burn of the sun without sunscreen. Try to stand against spring runoff. I study and practice Iaido because I must.

I practice in my basement. I practice outside. I practice on mats. I practice on hardwood floors. I practice in the heat. I practice in the snow. I practice Iaido and trying to convince me to do otherwise would be futile. O’negai shimasu.

Simplicity in Connections

None of us lives in a vacuum.  I am reminded of this daily.  Relying upon others sometimes goes unnoticed and it’s easy to forget how intricately woven together all of our lives are.  The social hierarchy of feudal Japan reflected this by placing farmers above craftsmen and merchants.  If we don’t eat, we don’t live.

Within each person, each role can be found.  There are the aspects of ourselves that we cultivate and grow that provide sustenance to those around us, and those that protect and serve.  The relationship between teacher and student is the same.  As a student I am there to make it easier for the teacher to teach, and as a teacher I am there to make it easier for the student to learn.  This tension between each trying to make the efforts of the other easier is the gravity that pulls both together along the same path.  The efforts to walk the same path is called training.  O negai shimasu.


Student Writing

At Iaido Tanshinjuku, it is important for students to write about Iaido as they internalize their learning. This piece is about an essential aspect in Iaido, chiburi.  Please click on the word to read more.  “chiburi


In the study of Iaido, and many things, it is important to copy what the teacher is modeling. Doing exactly what the teacher is doing, or the model student is showing, is the way we learn the proper technique. Matching our bodies to the exact position that is being shown allows us to learn the ultimate refinement of the technique, and tests our self-control.  We must learn the form before we can transcend it.

It is easy to watch a technique or a movement and think, “Oh, I know what he is doing,” and then do something completely different that we think is the same. Instead, try to make your thumb like the teacher’s thumb, try to make the arc of the sword the same arc as the teacher’s arc, match your teacher, copy exactly.

I remember one day training in the dojo and Sensei had gathered a few of the senior students around him as he watched my sempai and I train. He had scolded the group about their lack of progress in the art and told them they had plateaued. Silence settled as they reflected on their development. He then said, “Do you see how Steve uses his saya? He learned that by watching.”

It is difficult to see all the movements of our teachers. There is so much to learn, but if we don’t learn everything we can from our teachers, how can we expect to preserve the teachings? The art will pass from us, and the old teachings will become lost. We must preserve before we can rip it apart, separate it, and reconfigure, “Shuhari”. We must train our minds to see what is there and train to copy the form to preserve it. We are the living legacy of our teachers and in order to honor them we must preserve that which they have taught.  Keep training!

Speaking the Language

One of the biggest obstacles to learning anything is its language.  No matter what it is, each career, occupation, skill, family, organization, country, region, etc. has its own language.  For a learner, the vocabulary specific to the discipline must be acquired in order to think about the different aspects of that discipline.  In basic Mathematics, sum, product, quotient, and factor are some of these content specific words.  With each level of understanding, sometimes new vocabulary accompanies that level, as in literature we first learn a figure of speech before refining further between a simile and a metaphor.  Using the vocabulary of a discipline provides the vehicle for communication and transmission of the skills.

Attached here is a basic set of words used commonly at Iaido Tanshinjuku, and in Iaido practice.  Keep Training!

Iaido Tanshinjuku glossary

To Be A Blackbelt

The world is our teacher.  In every moment of every day there are lessons to be learned.  Some lessons are momentous, and others are subtle.  Some people believe that a black belt is an accomplishment, which it is, but it is just the “first step” along the path.

When we are born, it takes us a long time to learn how to walk.  We first learn to lift our heads, then roll over, then crawl, then cruise, then we take our first steps without the assistance of others, but as adults we forget how much work it takes to do these things because we walk so much and without much effort.  We take walking for granted, and think learning should be instantaneous, after all, there is instant coffee, but learning is not instant.  Learning happens in steps and stages.  Some steps are higher, some stages are longer.

I suppose the “first step” can be a difficult concept for people to grasp when it takes years to achieve a black belt, and there are many steps along the way to its acquisition.  I adopt my teacher’s perspective that a black belt means that the person who wears one knows how to learn.  There is an echo in the following: “First you have to teach your sword, then it teaches you.”

Keep training, keep learning, and listen to your teacher!



Learning keeps us young and flexible.  Even as our bodies begin to stiffen from the demands of living, we work and train to maintain our flexibility.  The same need applies to our minds.  New skills, new techniques, and new perspectives all stretch our minds.

Continue to look at skills and patterns of thought to determine where mental stretching will benefit you.  Keep training!