It's that time of year again, when I review what I've been thinking during the judging season.
Judging a school you've never seen before.
Something that comes up regularly in the ZNKR is the question of judges looking at a koryu iaido kata that they've never seen before. At a certain level a koryu kata is required during a grading challenge, so what happens when your koryu is one that the panel has little or no experience with?
As someone who sits on that proverbial panel and judges, I will try to give a feel for what I do when I come across a koryu that I've never seen before... or a koryu lineage that isn't what I've looked at before. Firstly, I try to keep an open mind. I remind myself that the Hoki-ryu class that I took a while ago from a ZNIR sensei was comprised almost exclusively of "wrong" ways of doing everything... and I'm not kidding. It was ALL "wrong" from the nuki to the noto, according to what I'd been taught in my own koryu Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. Yet it made perfect sense from the riai of Hoki Ryu.
It's my hope that I have kept an open mind and I have looked into the various ways that one can swing a katana around and I don't judge on "how much it looks like my sensei did it". Since my sensei always said there's more than one "right" way to do it, I try to look at the technique from the point of view of "does it work within the framework of that school"
You have to watch it even if you're trying to judge a strange kata by the student's cutting ability, you can't judge a cut by your own koryu or by ZNKR seitei. The shape, timing and positioning of the cuts can be different. The only real way to do it is to judge whether or not it would have cut, given the presumed target and the cut itself. Since that is very difficult to tell from watching one or two kata of a school I've never seen before, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt and I'll weight my decision more heavily on the "representative set" of techniques, while keeping in mind that the demonstration of that person's koryu may show me where some of that person's "variation" on the seitei gata comes from. God help the student who does a koryu from a lineage that I do know, there's no defence in "you don't know it" there, if they aren't up to their sensei's standard for the grade challenged, they fail that kata.
A further useful way to judge a koryu kata is to look at the seitei gata afterward, if someone can do a correct swing in the common set, then the strange swing in the koryu kata is likely not a mistake. In that sense it becomes very much more important for the student of the unfamiliar koryu to be very, very clean in their seitei, especially the first kata after their koryu kata. Show the panel that what you did in the koryu kata was on purpose, not a general sloppiness.
It's always a student's fear that judges may not have had even as little experience as I have had with other schools, but that fear is usually not as justified as it might at first seem. By the time you're sitting on a panel you ought to have seen quite a lot. From the very beginning here in Canada we collected video, invited other sensei and styles, and generally tried to get as wide a range of experiences as we could, while concentrating on our own studies. This was a very deliberate policy for the folks "at the top". Our students are also indulged if they wish to cross train, and many of them do. Even those who want to concentrate are not told there is a "right" and "wrong" way to do a koryu kata. Even within the same lineage they are given a range and told to stay in that range.
To reiterate, we require a koryu kata at a very early stage in Canada, (nidan) and that kata is very useful to a judge, it tells us where the "outside influence" on the student's seitei gata comes from, and lets the panel members know where the "variations" arise. This lets us judge the seitei gata more accurately. So, far from being a disadvantage, the judgement of a koryu we've never seen before can actually be of benefit to the challenging student.
What kata should a student do?
The answer I give my students? Do mae/shohatto.
As an old fart I've likely seen just about every variation out there, I've sat on a panel and watched every kata of Zen Ken Ren at least twice every year since 1991, from an average of probably 40 or 50 students at each grading. If you're an ikkyu or a shodan and you can pick your own kata you'd better damned well nail it if you pick shihogiri. You're not going to impress me that you've sort of got the dance steps memorized.
No matter what level I'm looking at, I want to see how you do mae/shohatto and that's going to tell me pretty much all I need to know. Nail that and I'll likely look at the other guys on the floor for the rest of the test.
Go out there and do kaewaza and all you're going to do is tell me that you're more interested in collecting kata than in getting good at it. A grading is not the place to make a statement about where you figure the value of training lies. As a judge on the panel I'll tell you exactly where it lies, in the basics, in the kihon, in Mae. Show me the kaewaza in a demonstration, I'll be delighted to see it and later I may even be able to tell you where I first saw it myself. But when I'm trying to judge how far you've progressed in iaido itself, don't mess around, show me your best kata and nail them. While sitting on that panel I'm "dojo blind" you're just a number, your dojo badge is covered up and if you're one of my students you're still just a body on the floor. The fact that you can do that kata well 10 months out of the year doesn't count when you blow it at the grading. You pass or fail on those 5 kata, just like life, no second chances, no credit for nerves.
I watched two of my senior students fail their test a while back. They both did yae gaki and the head judge's comment to me later was "they didn't look like you do when they did it".
Do Mae, as a judge I don't care if you know the other 65 kata in the school and 25 variations of each... at one point I knew over 250 separate iaido kata and kaewaza from at least 6 different schools, and could sit down in a four hour period and do them all without mixing them up. I wasn't impressed then and am not impressed now with that ability, it was just so much time away from doing MJER Mae (from my own line) correctly.
Judging variations from dojo to dojo
Even something as seemingly simple as the etiquette can cause problems at times.
In Eastern Canada we had that sorted for a while, over the years we managed to get every club, Muso Shinden Ryu and MJER to do the same etiquette. Now one year someone goes over to Japan for a week and comes back with "this is the way they're doing etiquette now for seitei".
So it's another piece of "means nothing" that people can agonize over instead of practicing what they need to practice... and another way for students to say "the judges don't know how we do it in our dojo" instead of looking to their own ability to do iaido. Judges will judge on all sorts of things, but that's not the challenger's worry. It's the challenger's job to show the very best that they have, to put it out to the judges and say "deal with that". It's the judges' job to deal with it.
I can tell you that the judges who were told "this way to do etiquette is OK" got a very puzzled look on their faces as they said.... "duh". (Not to mention a puzzled look on their faces as they started to wonder about the wisdom of juniors who figured it was a good idea to "tell their grammas how to suck eggs").
It's easier on the students to have as much standardized as possible, having 3 or 4 different versions of etiquette is fine, but confusing for all and distracts from the real work.
Which reminds me of another related pet peeve of mine. I just loooove it when people from a faraway club tell me "well we're going to be at a disadvantage because the judges aren't familiar with our style".
Umm, so go grade where they're familiar with your lovely style and leave us alone? Or shut up and accept our decision on your iaido if you come and sit in front of us? You figure we're going to pass your crappy iaido because you've just told us that you'll complain that we aren't qualified to judge you if we fail you?
I honestly can't see any way that one would stand in front of a set of judges that one honestly believes aren't qualified to judge you. What's the point? Hope you get by and now you've got an extra grade? Hell go start your own organization and promote yourself to whatever grade you want... or shut up and accept the judgement of the organization you're in.