United States Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu Gennankai


Reflecting Pool

Individual Expression through the Medium of Kata

Gennan Buhaku, 2007-02-06

On the evening of January 24, 2012, a special dinner was held at the official residence of Japanese Consul General Kuninori Matsuda to which I, Dianne Alexanian (USTRI Director of Operations) and Mr. Neil Simon, President of the United States Judo Federation were invited to discuss how the Consulate could be of assistance in promoting the growth of the traditional Japanese martial arts in Michigan.

As we were all leaving the official residence that evening, Consul General Matsuda presented us with a most generous and invaluable gift. It was a copy of Budo: The Martial Ways of Japan published in 2009 by the Nippon Budokan Foundation. Since that time, as I have read through the various chapters of this book, I have discovered many important and useful ideas and perspectives that I have shared with members of the United States Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu organization during their training time at the Dojo. One very thought-provoking and fascinating train of thought that is dealt with in this book is the idea of “expressing one’s individuality through the performance of Kata” and it is this topic that I would like to expand upon in this edition of The Reflecting Pool.

Section Four of the above mentioned text is written by Associate Professor Nakabayashi Shinji of the University of Tsukuba and is entitled “Why Study Budo? In the sub-section, “The Culture of Budo”, Professor Nakabayashi makes the following statement:

Kata are an integral part of the curriculum of budo and the traditional arts, and contain the technical and philosophical essence of the founder’s teachings. Novices begin their study of budo by duplicating the kata exactly as it is taught by the master, avoiding any deviation from the prescribed form. (p.47)

He states further on that:

Even though the process begins with precise copying, it eventually facilitates the growth of true individual attributes and a penetrating sense of imagination. The instructor oversees this development in the student, and teaches in a way that encourages the burgeoning of individuality. Temperament, independence and individuality are the factors that lead to the development of art. (p.48)

The traditional Japanese martial Dojo is, in many ways, a microcosm of Japanese society, which requires its members to conform to a set pattern of etiquette and behavior in order to maintain societal harmony. As stated above, one begins the learning process in the Dojo by “precise copying” and “avoiding any deviation from the prescribed form” of the kata being taught.

Eventually, as the author states:

By throwing the self into the study of the kata, it becomes a part of the ‘self’. This provides the platform for further growth until eventually the student is liberated from the constraints of kata and is able to forge their own individuality within the kata framework. (p.47)

Just as the Japanese, especially the successive younger generations, are asking themselves: “How can I express my individuality within a group-based culture?” we who practice the traditional Japanese martial arts must, at some point, come to grips with this notion of transcending the “constraints of kata” in order to express who we are as individuals “within the kata framework”…a process that requires years of effort and dedication to achieve.

One of the keys to achieving this result is, I believe, confidence. Especially for those students who have achieved the level of Sandan (Third Degree) and higher, there should be a strong sense of confidence that they have internalized the waza, or techniques, that they have been taught and do not need to be as concerned about the technical elements of the waza as they were when they held a lower rank. This is not to say that they are perfect with respect to the waza…learning a traditional Japanese martial art such as Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu is a life-long pursuit and corrections to technique will continually be made by the instructor so that the technique can be further “polished” to achieve the qualities of kurai no Tamiya (Tamiya Nobility) and bi no Tamiya (Tamiya beauty, or elegance) during the performance of kata.

This is where the instructor’s role becomes extremely important. Only after having reached the point where he is able to express his own individuality with no “deviation from the prescribed form” of the kata can he be able to tell when a given student has reached a similar stage and can then be told that their skill level is at a point where they can now look within…at who they are…and begin to express their true self through the parameters of the kata. It is most enlightening and fulfilling to watch a student “let go”, as it were, and suspend their self-criticism so that the kata becomes the medium of their own self-expression.

In conclusion, it is my belief that as a student progresses up the traditional ranking system, they can gradually be encouraged by their instructor to let their “self” find its expression during the performance of kata. When the instructor feels that they have internalized a given technique to the point where they can “let go” and have confidence in their own ability, then the instructor can reinforce that confidence so that the student has the freedom of self-expression.

Here is a final thought from Professor Nakabayashi:

To succeed, the practitioner must have unity in body and mind, and be able to focus all of their powers into one concentrated movement. Mental and physical faculties must not lose their unity. Judgment must be instantaneous, and the resulting movement be made immediately with total conviction. When the mind is melded with the body, judgment can transform into movement, and theory into action. Only then can the technique be a part of the practitioner’s very being. All of these elements must be present to ensure success. (p.53)

Respectfully submitted,

Michael Alexanian (Gennan) - 7th Dan
USTRI General Manager (Sokatsu Shibucho)
Genwakai Head Instructor (Shihan)
United States Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu
Michigan Honbu Dojo