I spent my last day in Kyoto sitting at one of the shajo, watching 1/4 of the people testing for renshi. When I got up that morning I halfway wanted to sleep in, then go sightseeing, but it turned out to be worthwhile, if a bit mysterious, to go back to the shinsa.
I don’t have my program with me but if I recall correctly there were about 700 people testing, divided between the four shajo, each with five hanshi as judges. Within the groups testing at each shajo, it seems like there was a full range of kyudo “ages” (years since 5-dan or 6-dan) from people taking the test for the first time to veterans with more than 20 years under their obi. As usual, there was a first round in which people used the normal shinsa timing (with hada-nugi and tasuki-sabaki). Then after a delay there was an announcement of those who passed the first round, which was then followed by a second round in which those who passed performed mochi-mato sharei.
Of the 175 or so people assigned to the shajo I was watching, a fair number [I’m being intentionally vague here] passed the first round, and about half that passed the second round. As I watched the first round I made notes about who I thought might pass, based on memories of other shinsa.
You have to make some allowances here. First, I’m not a hanshi, so in kyudo terms, I can’t see what they see. Second there is the viewing angle and the fact that nobody can watch ten people at once, so even physically, in an ordinary sense, I couldn’t see what those five people saw. And then, as you’ll see, I’m not even certain what they’re looking for, what the priorities are. So with those grains of salt, I thought two people would pass the first round, plus maybe a couple of others who I was on the fence about, usually because they shot well but maybe missed one arrow.
It was a surprise to see more pass that first round. At one of the recent seminars, the teacher (hanshi, 8-dan) said that in order to pass renshi you had to (1) make no mistakes, (2) beyond that be excellent. I thought, “since renshi is a teaching level you would want this person to be a proper model… you should wish that this person’s students will shoot the way they do.” The two people that I thought would pass were indeed among those who did, but several of the others, for example, shot very quickly, about one second in kai, and I thought, “They won’t want students shooting this fast.”
Since time in kai is more or less objective, this must mean that the judges were seeing, or valuing, something I wasn’t. There must be something extra these people had to compensate for what is, I suppose (possibly in arrogance), a bit of a technical problem. So it was very interesting. What were these people doing?
Looking back at video, the one thing that stands out to me is that, at the release, their left and right hands/arms went straight out, with no extra up or down, no extra left or right. In particular the hands never dropped below the horizontal line of the shoulders. This seems obvious by it can be a bit subtle because at the moment of hanare, the tensions built up in the body at kai will unwind in milliseconds, coming to a complete rest after about one second (you can tell if you watch 30fps video frame-by-frame). This means that people using a mirror to check their form at zanshin will not see the movement that occurs during that one second, but instead see things after everything has settled down, and in many cases that “ending” form looks pretty good.
But that first one second is crucial. People who passed didn’t seem to need much unwinding. Their hands and arms just extended out naturally into a good zanshin form, without requiring any compensating movements. Many others would, say, have both arms drop below the line of the shoulders, then raise their arms back up. Or one arm would go up while the other went down, then both returned to a supposedly good zanshin form. I wondered if, in a way, people had learned to force it?
Another common problem is that people open their left hand at the release. Most likely this is in “sympathy” with the right hand, and is an indication of an intentional release. With video you can see that most clearly with people who wince or blink at the release. If the wince occurs a split-second before the release occurs, they’re anticipating. Whatever brain signal is going out to trigger the release reaches the face/eyes first.
Mind you, I’m not being critical. In video I’ve seen of myself, I’ve done all of these things, often for long periods (and probably still do!). I’m just pointing out how subtle it all can be, that a lot happens in those 1000 milliseconds after the arrow flies, and that it’s all but invisible to the person shooting (although you might feel it, or see the result in the flight of the arrow, the tsurune, etc). But the shinsa-in can see it, and I suspect that’s why more people passed than I expected: those people had solved the conundrum of the release, even if maybe they had some other issues.
I have no idea if this is accurate, but it fits some other thoughts that have been percolating since my practice sessions shortly before, and while in, Kyoto.
As for the ni-ji shinsa, likewise when I watched, I honestly thought that nobody would pass. Everyone either made taihai mistakes or again, had that super-fast kai. But it turned out that several did pass, and as I thought over the differences, again it seems to me that the shinsa-in were either seeing different things, or valuing them differently.
In this case, I think what mattered most is whether people were able to truly act in harmony with the other members of their group. For example, in one of the sharei that I watched, people really were in harmony, better even than I had seen in some of the hitotsu-mato sharei for the kyoushi exam. So even though there was at least one significant taihai error, some of that very fast shooting, and three people only hit with one arrow, they passed. In another group, where the harmony was notably lacking, it seemed like one person did OK, but then failed because of a taihai error at the last minute. As a result, it seems to me that harmony counts for an awful lot and will offset other problems. It’s still possible for a person in a group that lacks harmony to do OK on technical grounds, hitting twice, etc, but a taihai mistake can still cancel all that out.
But again, I have no idea if these impressions are accurate. Next time I have a chance I’m going to check this out with teachers who act as shinsa-in, and see what the story is (if they will tell me). In the meantime, it’s just stuff to think about, and to practice. And in the end we need all of those things (clean/unimpeded release, harmony, technical excellence) no matter how long it takes, so there’s no harm done if I’m wrong. I suppose I’ll get my answers one way or another soon enough!
Two More Thoughts (Later)
If, in order to pass renshi, you need to make no mistakes and be “excellent,” what’s left for kyoushi and the levels above? I can only imagine (after a hint from one of the hanshi), that it’s the spiritual aspect. Technically you’re there. In terms of performance, there. But spirit… maybe that’s the work?
And then, I thought about some of the older people testing, still trying after many years. I wondered if allowances would be made for age and physical difficulties? It seemed to me that, with the exception of people who have no choice but to shoot rissha, no special allowances were made, but it was a small sample size.