Whilst nowhere near as popular or widespread as kendo, dedicated iaido clubs can be found at many Japanese universities. University students often have a strong showing in shiai, and student taikai are highly competitive with some great iai on show. University club members often have extremely strong form, visually impressive iai, and ability far beyond the average for their grade.* However, student iaido or ‘gakusei iai’ is also marked by several quirks that many sensei say must be overcome if a student wants to progress into the higher grades. Taking my former club as an example, I’ll give a brief description of why the student approach to iai does so well in shiai, and what its weaknesses are.
I began studying iai at a Japanese university club. I was only there for a year, so whilst it gave me a good grounding it didn’t really make me better than average. If I’d stayed longer, however, I’m convinced my iai would be considerably better than it is now. That’s not to belittle the sensei who taught me and the dojo I attended in the UK, as they were excellent – but it’s a simple matter of numbers.
At my Japanese university, most of the club members have never done iai before joining (although many have kendo experience). Students take ikkyu after a few months, and by the time they graduate they have usually reached sandan. The club is taught at least once a week by a hachidan sensei, who is assisted by other visiting sensei and several yondan and godan graduates.
Keiko is three times a week, but in reality additional training sessions bring that up to four or five times. Keiko officially lasts for two hours, but some days – especially when the sensei is present – it can be more than twice that. This means that students practise ten to fifteen hours a week. To put that in perspective, it’s as much as many people do in a month.
The volume of teaching alone would be enough to produce (over the years) some excellent iaidoka. However there is another factor that perhaps has even more influence over the students’ iai, and that is – wait for it– the amount of kihon practice. The first third of each session is devoted to suburi of various kinds, ashi-sabaki, leg conditioning and so on. This intense kihon training forms the basis for gakusei iai’s strengths. Kihon is invariably followed by strict drilling of waza (including koryu); however, students do a lot of free solo practice as well. There is pressure to do well, not slack off, and not let the team down.
Ah, the team. Yes, a major focus of the clubs is competition, but it would be wrong to assume that students only focus on the gendai waza that are the mainstay of most shiai. In their first year, students at my old university club also learn the first two sets of Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu koryu (Omori ryu and Eishin ryu). These are practiced without fail every keiko, and while there is a stronger emphasis on ZNKR seitei, students take koryu very seriously too. A fact little-known outside Japan is that koryu forms a major part of many iaido shiai, and student shiai are no exception. Some, such as the West Japan Student Iaido Taikai (西日本学生居合道大会), require even mudansha to perform one or two koryu waza.
So this training method, with its strict drills and conditioning and a focus on kihon, can result in some great, shiai-winning iaido. However, as a student progresses beyond sandan, they will face increasing pressure from sensei to ‘correct’ certain hallmarks of student training if they want their iai to mature.
There are two major criticisms of gakusei iai:
- Highly exaggerated movements. We are often encouraged to make our waza ‘big,’ but students take it to another level. Their nukitsuke and kirioroshi are huge, their steps are long, and they are very deliberate in their motions. This is great kihon, but it lacks something.
- Emphasis on maintaining a clean outer form at the expense of meaningfulness. The waza may look beautiful, but the intent behind it is often lost. This is true even of koryu waza. The constant drilling of waza as a large group is a major factor in this.
In fact, these two points can be further reduced to a single word: ‘depth.’ No matter how good the kihon, if the iai has no meaningful intent behind it, one can only progress up to a certain point.** This isn’t to say there’s no feeling there, but that feeling often lacks subtlety and focus. Once the student has progressed so far, the sensei will start altering the way they teach them, and guide them towards a different approach to training. This more meaningful form of iai, however, doesn’t necessarily win shiai. When it comes down to it, there is one simple reason why the gakusei iai traits described above are allowed to form – at student levels, this kind of iai wins competitions.
Whilst gakusei iai may only take a practitioner so far, when treated as a phase in development it offers an excellent base of solid kihon to build on. At the lower levels, students are probably the best iaidoka around. If they want to continue to improve, though, they will eventually have no option but to throw away their desire to win.
* It should also be noted that at beginner levels, practitioners outside Japan are often better than the Japanese average – partly because many of them don’t grade as frequently.
** I am currently a long way from reaching this point!
Photo by Leiv Harstad