The Iaido Journal  July 2001EJMAS Tips Jar

Sherman Lee: The Iaido Interviews

Date: June 7-12, 2000
Instructor: Sherman Lee
Organization: All Japan Iaido Federation
Club name: Battokan
Location: Adelaide, Southern Australia
Ramon Lawrence in Perth has a long reach.

Before I left Perth the iaido instructor sent out several e-mails letting other Kendo and Iaido people in the Australian Kendo Federation know that I was heading east, towards the more populous, less-isolated areas of Australia.

With Ramon’s help I had a fairly comprehensive list of contact names for each of the cities I was planning to visit and even two offers for short home-stays. Despite the small numbers of Iaido practitioners in Australia there was no problem finding them. They say Aussies are friendly; I'll confirm that it's entirely true. Thank you Ramon and the many others (including you Ian, you slouch!) who helped me on the first leg of my travels in Australia.

I had just stepped off the bus after a grueling 36-hour ride, as if 36 hours on a bus could be anything else than torturous. I was wondering if I should call the Iaido contact numbers I had for Adelaide, or go straight to the chiropractor’s to have my back reset. I hadn’t taken more than ten steps off the bus when a youthful, kind-faced Chinese man approached.

"Do you practice Iaido?" He asked politely.

"Yes, I do," brightening up, "Are you Chris?" I’d been in contact with Chris Wallace, an Adelaide Kendo guy who’d been searching around for even more dojo information for me. I assumed it was he.

"No, I'm Sherman. Chris contacted me about you."

"Oh” mild pleasant surprise, “I'm Chris, nice to meet you. Really, thanks for coming." What else can you do or say when complete strangers come to help you out.

After introductions Sherman replied, "It wasn't hard finding you, not with the sword bag."

"Yeah. People stare at this thing! 'Is that a gun?' 'No. Just a toy.' I usually tell them." Sherman laughed.

"You have training tonight don't you?" I remember Chris saying something about a Thursday night class.

"Yes, we have class right about now. Do you want to train?" I had no other real purpose than to train, but I bet I looked more than a little ragged, and probably smelled worse.

"Sure! I'm a little beat after that ride but yeah, I'd love to."

Tom then approached from across the parking lot and introduced himself. He's a senior student of Sherman's. Tom has what sounds like a German accent under his Australian one, and carries a very approachable, likeable manner. Apparently, some of the first settlers in Adelaide were Germans.

No doubts, Sherman and Tom were friendly as they come, like most of us nerds wrapped in hakamas playing samurai wannabes. After bringing me to my pre-booked hostel to check in we made off for the Kilburn Community Center.

The group of about eight students that trained that Thursday evening is part of the Zen Nihon Iaido Renmei--The All Japan Iaido Federation, not to be confused with the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei or the All Japan Kendo Federation. The two groups are the largest Iaido organizations at present in the world. Whereas the Kendo organization contains Kendo, Jodo and Iaido, the All Japan Iaido organization is devoted solely to Iaido. They are definitely different organizations with a past history of some conflict. My experiences in Japan tend towards the two not liking one another very much. Fortunately, this does not permeate all members of either organization, especially outside Japan. My affiliation with the ZNKR posed no problems for Sherman Lee's group.

Sherman Lee began Iaido about 10.5 years ago with the Hokushin Shinoh ryu, based in Adelaide. Tom also practiced with this group as did Danny Mayman, the guy with the huge swords of Eishin Iaijutsu.

At some point about 8 years ago, for some reasons probably best left alone, Sherman left the Hokushin group (as did Tom and Danny though at what points they left I’m not sure) and started to train within two separate Iaido schools. At the time I visited Sherman he was a sixth dan Renshi with the ZNIR, practicing Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. Within the ZNIR one can become a 'sensei' after passing the sixth dan Kyoshi test. Sherman would be heading to Japan for that test later in 2000.

After leaving Hokushin Iaido Sherman went over to Japan and trained for 14 months with an Ishibe, Hiroshi sensei (Hanshi, hachidan ZNIR) in Okayama prefecture.

In 1994 Sherman came back to Australia to train with Tom, who had by then left the Hokushin group as well and was doing personal training at the community center. It was then that they created the 'Battokan' dojo under the auspices of the ZNIR and Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu people in Okayama prefecture. Every year Sherman and some of his group try to get over to Japan for training. Ishibe sensei also comes to Adelaide for seminars and instruction.

After Sherman introduced me to the group we went into a Japanese style group warm-up. By 'Japanese style’ I mean free, individualized warm-up and training time. This system works well with those who don’t mind going over techniques and kata tens of times over, on their own initiative. In this atmosphere one can quickly spot the serious trainee from the 'slacker.' This is my favourite type of practice because this is the style of training used in my dojo in Japan; I’m used to it. Of course I took this particular opportunity to work on my iaido but I also made a point to observe Sherman's group…

What I liked most about the Battokan was Sherman's approach to the free training: He went right to work, up at the front facing everyone, and dug into the techniques he was working on. So instead of direct instruction he led by example, developing his own techniques. In doing this Sherman set the tone and pace for the first part of training that night. I was reminded of my training in Japan very much at this point: Here was a guy who’d trained in Japan before, and not for just a week or two.

Sherman’s free training approach is a critical component in iaido training. Many instructors jump in, and on, their students to quickly, instead of letting them work things out on their own.

With Sherman’s approach students can observe and model him, finding confidence in personal training without worrying about scrutiny.

This training style is the time to watch, steal, and do. Observe, take, and develop—some of the core elements of any practical education.

I looked around and every single member in Sherman's group was focused on an iaido activity. These people had learned that this was their time, not Sherman’s teaching time.

Later, I learned from the quiet way in which Sherman did lead the group, advising instead of correcting . The man was humble pie in a human package. You can’t help but respect people like Sherman.

After the warm-up and free training time Sherman asked me to perform a demonstration for his group.

Having gotten into the grove of demos, I calmly (for once) proceeded to explain my membership in the ZNKR and it’s association, or lack of, with the ZNIR.

From the seitei-gata I performed five kata, then five more from the Shoden and Chuden levels of Muso Shinden ryu. This was followed by a demonstration from Tom of five of the seven standard kata of the ZNIR, known as the ‘Toho.’ Following Tom, Sherman performed about ten kata from among the entire set of MJER waza as they are practiced in the ZNIR. Both men had a smooth precision, along with a good dose of passion, in their forms. Their demos were thoroughly enjoyable!

After the demonstrations Tom worked with a new Iaidoka and Sherman led the rest of the class through kata drills. They allowed me my own little space in the gymnasium where I worked through some of the seitei set. When I rested I would watch their lesson in progress. I noticed that most of the students had a working knowledge of the Oku level of their system. Sherman told me that when Ishibe sensei comes to do seminars, he covers ‘the works', and so Sherman finds it worthwhile to make his students aware of all of the techniques, regardless of rank.

The second training night, after getting off the city bus at Gladstone Road instead of Gladstone Avenue, then having to speed walk a good kilometer or two to get to the proper Gladstone (this is why I always leave early for these things!) we enjoyed a free class of personal training. Chris Wallace of the Adelaide Kendo group joined us and Sherman gave him basic instruction in iaido suburi. During this class I asked Sherman a few questions.

"Why would someone come here and want to learn iaido? What reasons would you give someone to study iaido?"

Sherman began, "Hmmm, to build self discipline and self control; to know oneself; to develop character. Today's iaido is modern iaido. This is different from real iaido of the past. Today everything we do is in the waza, but the basic core of iaido is still present. We have the same goals as the past..."

I look at him waiting for that answer...

"If we can get to the same point through the waza training then we can gain the same attributes as the samurai had..."

I understand what Sherman said. In my view, we can create strength of character through perseverance and diligence in training.

In taking something and working it over and over we gain a symbiotic relation to it. It moves from the thinking act to the instinctive, doing act. We find solace and comfort in these acts that then serve to bring about confidence in our abilities, not just in iaido.

As this confidence grows, and on the other hand our humility drops when we realize how little we do know in the big ‘iaido’ picture, we come to terms with other facets of our life. Iaido brings reality home to us. A full and rewarding life takes effort. Our relations with others take patience and this same kind of effort. Iaido offers us the opportunity to create a balanced approach to the lives we live by helping us develop inner strength.

Not only these character-building facets of iaido training inspire us: the preservation of a very noble part of Japanese history compels many of us to train. Heck, most of us think swords are cool, and probably watched one too many of martial arts movies when we were kids.

Now we belong to something important, to a tradition that speaks of an honour that isn't easily acquired in the world today. Everyone wants to be a part of something special: Japan the mysterious offers a wonderful art like iaido for us to take up.

"How about your teaching approach here at the Battokan?"

"We do a mix of western and eastern approaches. Sometimes we have free classes, like tonight. Sometimes I lead the class through kata. But students need the free time to discover iaido. I must teach them some things: they need to be led, but some things I hold back. I want them to discover those things. As you know we may all be of the same school of iaido but each of us has our own 'personal style' in training."

"Yes. I know what you mean. People create their own styles within the framework of an iaido school." ‘Style’, as I use it now, doesn’t refer to the body of knowledge that comprises one's school of iaido rather, the personal flavourings you can see in iaidoka who perform the same kata, at the same rank, with the same teacher.

Sherman continued, "Some people need more detailed attention than others and so I tend to them as well." He later adds that he wished he had more of his own free time to train.

Later, when asked about new memberships, Sherman mentioned that he gets a lot of calls from people: many of them are looking for self-defense courses, to which he points them in other martial directions. Some people come for a free lesson, but as us iaido people know so well, only the few remain. Most of us are coming from other arts at that.

As always, I thanked my hosts, Sherman, Tom, and Chris Wallace. It was a pleasure meeting everyone in the Battokan.

Oh yeah, Dave--it's not a twenty dollar sword, or camera for that matter! Typical Aussie humour-brother!

Adelaide Battokai

The bearded guy is Chris Wallace. The man on his front left is Sherman Lee. Dave, an Ocker who made good fun of my sword (all in jest I’m sure) is next to me...

TIJ July 2001