Physical Training Aug 2000

Iaido: A brief look at teaching styles in the Japanese and non-Japanese training hall and how the Japanese 'can produce' better iai students...

By Chris Gilham Copyright © 2000.
All Rights Reserved.

Most of us have heard, seen or read about this topic before: The differences in teaching styles between Western and Japanese training halls. Many a martial artist has commented upon these differences which often act as the foundation for establishing arguments for and against the need to train in Japan. In this piece I will specifically discuss the iaido training hall in Japan and the West. In doing so I will discuss the fundamental differences between the two in an attempt to argue that the Japanese training hall has the greater potential to create 'better' iaidoists. The argument will hopefully shed light on the elements of the typical Japanese teaching style and training hall atmosphere that leads to a more 'self directed' iaido student.

The Setting...

The following piece derives from personal experiences training in over ten separate iaido training halls throughout Japan from Okinawa to Tokyo. The western training hall analysis comes from training in roughly ten places from across Australia and Canada. Some may argue, quite validly, that my position as a visitor to various halls has influenced the regular teaching style and lesson formats of the halls. This is a point worth consideration, however, after four years in one particular Japanese hall and some two and three time visits to the same training halls, one can develop a fairly accurate assessment of regular teaching practices. After all, not that much deviation from the norm is warranted for a second dan holder in iai. The case would be substantially different were I a sixth dan or higher.

In this analysis it is my intention to argue for a more Japanese-styled approach to training in iaido. I do so with the best of intentions: To provide the best means possible through which an iai student can progress in iai training. Progress not just in the number of forms known, but in terms of quality of iaido technique, which includes both the technical and psychological aspects of training. The technical ranges from proper grip and swing to advanced sheathing and breathing in the form. Psychological refers to basic concepts like visualization of the form and it's application, 'combat awareness' and more advanced concepts such as an intuitive sense, the 'no-mind' of unconscious action and 'everyday mind.'

Also and importantly, this piece should in no way be read as a negative criticism of western dojos I have visited. No one training hall is alike, both in and out of Japan. There is no such thing as the 'perfect dojo': Each training hall has its own positive and negative aspects. I argue from the mean, that is to say, the average 'theme' of teaching style and training atmosphere encountered across training halls. As I have already noted, there are two main themes, one the western and the other, Japanese. The final say will emphasize not so much a pure Japanese style teaching method but a hybrid of the western and eastern styles.

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Why are they so different?

Students from the west who go to Japan often remark "There's hardly any structure in the dojo! How am I supposed to learn?" Likewise, Japanese students coming into western dojos may think "They are so structured! I can't get in any real training." These two polaric comments are better summized as "Why do they talk so little!?" versus "Why do they talk so much!?"

The answers of course lie in the psychological approaches to learning martial arts which have deeper roots in the cultural approaches to learning in general (although current Japanese education does NOT reflect this). D.T Suzuki in Studies in Zen comments upon differences between the eastern and western mind. "...the western mind is: analytical, discriminative, differential, inductive, individualistic, intellectual, objective, scientific, generalizing, conceptual, schematic, impersonal, legalistic, organizing, power wielding, self-assertive..." He then describes the Eastern mind "...the East can be characterized as follows: synthetic, totalizing, integrative, nondiscriminative, deductive, nonsystematic, dogmative, intuitive (rather, affective), nondiscursive, subjective..." (p.5)

Dr. Suzuki provides quite an exhaustive list but it is interesting to note the Western analytical, schematic and objective versus the intuitive, nonsystematic and subjective of the East. Early philosophical thinkers in the East have embraced these qualities while Western counterparts and the conception of the scientific method starting with pre-Socratic thought have been largely analytical. While the West eventually experienced the industrial revolution, the East flourished in the arts. But Eastern vs Western approaches to philosophy is not the domain of this piece. It is enough to acknowledge that the differences in teaching and learning style have origins far in the past and those differences can be seen across entire cultures, not just in the martial arts.

Today though, these approaches to learning and instruction are clearly seen in the Western and Eastern dojo.

The Eastern training hall...

Although the training time may be from seven to nine in the evening on Wednesdays and Saturdays this does not mean that a 'class' actually starts at seven. Coming late to that class is not frowned upon. Quite the contrary, the Japanese iaido class typically begins at one's own pace. This is the first sign that iai training in Japan is self-driven.

Coming into the dojo, paying respect to the teacher followed by training at one's own pace is the norm. This includes warming up and form training. Iaido in this format is a task of personal responsibility for one's own training. Some students will practice one section of a form ten times over. Others will sit and watch, pausing between techniques. Training is the prerogative of the individual: It is subjective and the class as a whole is mainly non-systematic. For beginners the responsibility for instruction rests with the senior students present. This instruction is often based upon modelling and repetitive practice. There is no systematic break down of technique nor are there lengthy, detailed explanations. There is a giving of pointers through which the student is then left to discover by repeated practice. Thus the process of responsible, intuitive iai begins. It is a growing process of iai discovery. The entire free class format is of course, under the watchful eye of the master of the training hall. Within the two hour period the sensei will usually stop the class to make a few points that he/she deems important for that session. Those points stemming from something seen during the lesson. The class may then practice those points as a group or will be left to work them out on their own, the sensei most likely moving back to his sitting position. Most sensei will deliver valuable points and slightly more concerted break down of technique for those in the training hall who show diligence and progress. This kind of sensei is the one concerned with iai and not his/her name, reputation or status in the training hall. It is fair to say that most teachers are of this crop.

Learning in the Japanese training hall can therefore be characterized as intuitive, largely self-guided, a process of slow growth and observation. This type of learning is characterized by Dr. Karl Friday as a kind of 'osmosis'. In general the class is largely unsystematic. Students come and go as their schedules dictate. There is no excess in the formalities of respect for one's teacher and seniors. Humility pervades the training hall atmosphere and detailed excessive question asking about technique is not common yet not entirely frowned upon either.

The Western training hall...

Systematically, the class starts at seven as a group. Coming late to class is often seen not as a sign of a busy schedule but as a lack of personal responsibility to the hall -- derived from school day bells and late slips no doubt. Line up and formal bowing in occurs. There is often group warm-up followed by teacher led instruction. Instruction is usually highly detailed and voluminous. There is little room for self exploration and discovery of iai technique through intuition. Questions are welcomed and often openly answered in depth, the onus being on the rational analysis so requisite of western thought. Group and individual pointers are made at the same junction with many instructors, as their Japanese counter-parts do, watching more than doing it seems.

Learning in the Western training hall can be characterized as teacher-led, systematic, highly analytical, a process of taking in as much as one can, breaking it down and having to work it out when one has the time. There is much attention paid to trying to be a 'Japanese dojo' in terms of the customs of rei.

Constructive criticism of the two approaches...

The Eastern dojo can initially be a real strain for those not accustomed to the 'take charge of one's own training in iai' format. The Western mind seeks for information, direction, structure and analysis. Patient repetitive training on limited techniques, when one may feel ready for more, can be the success of only a few who persevere. It would be nice, one thinks, to have some more instruction from the sensei. This may be a valid argument, especially for beginners when the responsibility for iai motivation and foundational techniques lie largely with the sensei or senior students.

Likewise, in building the basics thoroughly and maintaining those basics consistently across levels a group warm up is warranted. Not only is this an opportunity for the sensei to compare and check the abilities of students across levels doing similar techniques but it also provides what most iai dojo lack in Japan, a proper warm-up. The psychology of the group warm-up involves team building and motivation across levels. The push to do things right and just as well as the person to the right of oneself is cultivated in the warm-up.

The western dojo is too structured. It suffers from what I shall phrase "the bottle fed iaido habit." This teacher-led, systematized, detailed instruction does not create self-reflective, independent iai students but 'iai babies' waiting for 'sensei' to feed them huge chunks of analytical, detailed instruction they have so come to feel they need.

Furthermore, with the tenderest of steps I now dare tread, the largest problem in the western iai dojo appears to be seated directly with the instructor: Fourth, fifth and sixth dans resting their iai laurels to take a position in the high place of the dojo in order to unnecessarily spend valuable training time bottle feeding students. Although these dojo are not in Japan where high ranking teachers exist in plenty, allowing the most senior person to roam and comment freely, this does not mean that one should take the same position that teachers of iai with over thirty years of experience can take. My suggestion, and I ask the reader to take it from experience, not only as a student of iai in Japan but also as a trained teacher, is to teach by example. Lead by example: 'Get in with the troops' as it were and train together. Loosen up the reins of the class and let people practice. Give them the time to learn iai intuitively through free practice.

Most importantly, for all Western dojos where there are few if any kiyoshi ranked seventh and eighth dans continuously present, give students ample opportunity to learn from the best method known to educational science, through visual learning. That means students not only practice but have plenty of chances to see the instructor practice. I emphasize practice rather than demonstrate. With free class time the instructor has the best of both training worlds: She can see the progress of students and the way they internalize their iai while having the time to train in her own iai. Through this training format the instructor continually works the 'shu', the basics of iai, in the striving for positive progress. It is at this point that students may pause to watch the teacher train and thus gain valuable visual information. This type of training is known as 'mitori keiko', to watch and take. It is one of the primary learning methods of the Japanese iai dojo and is one of the reasons why I believe iaido is so strong in Japan.

Students learn to be intuitive and responsible for their iai progress in the Japanese dojo. This comes from the repetitive, self-reflective nature of free practice and the insight to be gained from observation carefully propelled forward by reasonable blocks of information. The western dojo however, appears to be constricting and not self-reflective. The bottle is shoved in the mouth and the students are led by the hand through iai instruction as it was not meant to be.

Instructors in the west, who I am sure are already aware of this, should take careful note that their Japanese counter-parts of sixth dan and higher take their hefty share of pointers and criticisms from their higher ranked peers...this is something to keep in mind when the yearly visits from the Japanese contingent are not around. The instructor must consistently train in order to lead by example so that when the Japanese contingent arrives, she is ready for more progress in the lifelong pursuit of iaido.

The Final say...

I have already said it: The hybrid iaido training hall that I believe is most conducive to progressive iaido training is one where the class follows a structured, exciting and healthy warm-up followed by a large period of free training at which point the instructor can also train and in so doing lead by example. The teacher can then create more structure in the class by bringing forward a few major points the class as a whole can work on. After more open training the teacher can perhaps make individual pointers followed by a final group session of kata performance to consolidate a night's worth of self-reflective iai gently and gradually guided by the iai facilitator.

There is of course room to formulate other versions of a hybrid class, however the teacher-led bottle feeding iai instruction must be avoided and western instructors, until the kiyoshi seventh and eighth dan grades have been awarded, should be doing whatever they can to remain a student inside their own dojo despite having the added responsibility of facilitating other, more junior iai students. Even after the highest of honours have been attained, there are those iaido instructors and masters who never rest their laurels which is, as any sincere martial artist will tell you, the definition of the ideal iaido student.

Without constant practice, the officers will be nervous and undecided when mustering for battle; without constant practice, the general will be wavering and irresolute when the crisis is at hand.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War. p.16


D.T. Suzuki, Studies in Zen. Unwin paperbacks. 1960.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War. Edited and forward by James Clavell. 1910.

Physical Training Aug 2000