Versione italiana: EIC - Interviste

Historical competitors:

  • Andy Watson s. (Iaido 7th Dan Kyoshi, Jodo 7th Dan Kyoshi)
  • Claudio Zanoni s. (Iaido 7th Dan Renshi)
  • Peter Roder s. (Iaido 6th Dan Renshi)

Q: What was the first EIC you took part in? Can you tell us a bit about your feelings and impressions you had back then?

Watson s.: My first EIC was in Brighton in 1999. At that time they were a kind of open event so anyone could participate in the shiai. Each country would nominate two key players from each grade and their total points would go on to decide the result of the team event. It was an interesting experience as I was originally going to be a nominated player but the squad management decided, at the last minute, that as I had been so busy doing the translation during the seminar that it would be too much stress for me. This actually made me a little angry so I went into the taikai with all guns blazing and ended up winning the Nidan category. Actually it was a good year for the UK as we won every category except Mudan. After the event, Jock Hopson Sensei came up to me and said “Lucky you were a nominated player then”. I replied that I wasn’t and had been dropped at the last moment. To this he raised a large eyebrow…

This was when I was young, very hot headed and quite selfish. I had no idea of the difficulty that a squad manager has in placing people in a team and the fact that they may have to choose two people from a pool of three or more ideal candidates. How do you make that decision? In the end you make a decision based on instinct or something that might seem quite arbitrary but there may be no other way.

I remember feeling very glad though that I had met my training partner in the finals, Steve Boyes. In my earlier years, Steve was an inspiration for me for good technique, coordination and natural power.

I also had this amazing feeling of being in an international community which I had not really sensed before. I came to realise from my more senior team mates that there were already friendly rivalries in place at the championships. I think Sweden in particular had been very strong in the previous few championships and the UK squad were looking for ways to overcome their strength. Something seemed to work that year anyway, we were the home-playing team and probably had more players in each category. 

Zanoni s.: Difficult question. The first ever was Brighton 1999 but it was not a “structured” championship. I attended it practically alone and after losing my 2 fights I went home. That adventure, however, gave me a good boost and the following year in 2000 I participated for the first time in the championships as we know them now. Due to the last defeat in England, I performed more aggressively, losing the final in the second Dan with one of my historical friend-enemies, Simonini. However, I redeemed myself the day after by winning the team gold medal with Grosso and Maresi. During that competition, in the semifinal, I was so excited that I got the order of the kata wrong by losing my competition, luckily Paolo and Roberto won their matches and brought us to the final. I remember that Paolo told me “don’t worry, you won’t make a mistake in the final”, in fact I have never made a mistake in a kata ever again. Lessons are always needed. A memorable experience that marked my path in iaido and introduced me to many people from different countries who had the same passion as me. Taking part in a seminar of that level in those years was an incredible privilege. It was also the year I met Ishido sensei and the year that changed my way of interpreting iaido.

Roder s.: What was the first EIC you took part in? Can you tell us a bit about your feelings and impressions you had back then? My first EIC was 1997 in Germany. At that time there were no restrictions that only 2 people per country/grade could join. Also in the German federation there were no organizations taking care of a kind of national team.

So finally I just registered myself and went there… At that time my focus was 99% on Kendo and I never joined an international seminar before! I think that was luck because otherwise I would have sh*t in my pants like crazy

Sagawa Sensei (9th Dan Hanshi) was leading the delegation and Morita Sensei from Kyoto was “only” 6th Dan Renshi (as far as I remember).

Btw it was also my first Taikai ever and I messed it up in a perfect way… I think I’ve had only one fight but I managed to pass my Shodan grading.


Q: What is your most memorable moment?

Watson s.: There have been so many great experiences at the EIC, especially those that finish with a crescendo of intensity. I have walked off a shiaijo more than once with a big smile on my face after having lost to my greatest rivals, Claudio Zanoni, Michael Simonini, Martin Lindgren and others. For me, those occasions have not felt like losses, they have felt like having taken a definite step forward. They felt almost no different from having won a championship. To put all you can into each fight, to endure against your nerves, to keep pushing away uncertainty – and then to have to wait in the finals line, in trepidation for your match…even writing about this makes my nerves tingle slightly. This is the victory for oneself. 

I think I would have to say that, the point where I never was unable to repeat the same success, was 2004 in Stockholm, Sweden. That year I won gold medals in both iaido and jodo for both individual and team events. I also won an overall fighting spirit decided by Kishimoto Sensei for best overall performance so that year I won 5 top medals (I might have won something similar for Jodo but I can’t be sure, it might have been 6 then). I should also add that at that event I ran up a 450 Euro bar bill although I’m not suggesting that the two events are connected…

I have to also add that the final between Jonathan Vandenbussche and Henrike

Michaelis in Meze, 2013, was a fight that should have been dedicated in a poem. I think Henrike would have had a good chance of winning the 4th dan final, her sharpness and poise are something to be really admired. Jonathan however performed “Chojo” from Tamiya Ryu, a form like Batto where the person makes a forward jump onto their knees to make a sudden cut. It was so athletic and sudden that everyone gasped. I think this was such a daring challenge to the usual way of selecting “safe” koryu kata that he couldn’t make a wrong move after this. I think there are very few times that a championships is remembered by the selection and the way that someone performs a kata so Jonathan should be proud of himself. 

Zanoni s.: Actually, there are too many great memories, starting with sayonara parties and ending with evenings spent talking, with my very poor English, with athletes and friends from all over Europe. A very vivid memory that I carry inside my heart was in Bologna at the time of my first success at the Europeans of Iaido in Bologna: after winning the match with my historic friend/enemy Andy Watson, Angela Papaccio approached me and said “now I understand what a fight in iaido is, but look, you haven’t finished yet” and in fact I didn’t get distracted and in the final I won with the English Threipland. I think that was really a day lived intensely.

Roder s.: Maybe there are two moments… The first moment was when Claudio Sensei was winning against Andy Sensei in Bologna 2005 and the audience was applauding. Not because of nasty behavior, just because Andy never lost a fight before and no one expected that anyone could ever beat him!

Second moment was in Paris 2010. I won my first EIC medal (3rd place) in 2008 just 2 months after becoming Godan. 2009 same result. So I was sure when I was flying to Paris in 2010 that a 3rd place would be “the obvious result”… finally I lost fights in my pool and the Taikai was over before reaching the k.o. rounds. I was unbelievably disappointed and I thought that I lost because of the mistakes of the referees! I was sitting alone on the tribune and watched the other competitors. All(!!) were moving and cutting differently from me and I realized that I’m travelling on a dead-end road. After Paris I changed my training and my development totally…


Q: During these years as a competitor, could you perceive any evolution of Iaido in Europe?

Watson s.: I would have to say yes although, of course, one’s own eye for appreciating other people’s iaido changes as well over time. Now that I am refereeing I have a little more mental capacity to observe and appreciate others. I am sure that the technical level has lifted in Europe but that should come as no surprise as we produce more and more high grade teachers and individuals can attend more seminar and taikai events during the year.

I think as a competitor it was sometimes difficult to appreciate others iaido as a) you didn’t want to be overwhelmed by them and b) you didn’t want your own iaido to try and do what they do and end up doing something unfamiliar. I now see things that really catch one’s attention that I had not noticed before.  Clementine Chung Ferreiro’s intensity, Stan Engelen’s composure and grace, Adam Bieniak’s vitality – these kinds of qualities never seemed to shine out as much as they do now. To have the ability to astound others that individuals bring to the championships, this is the kind of evolution that if it is real then I hope it increases in time.

I don’t think I am being controversial if I say that the later matches at the EIC have become so hard to judge because in many cases the competitors are able to perform better iaido than the judges. This then becomes very difficult to make judgements with any element of empathy; as a judge you have to make a very cold and surgical analysis of the differences between two people. I insist that this is a good state for Europe, that the younger generation are kicking the heels of the more senior generation. It is how widespread progress is made and any teacher who creates a student better than themselves has achieved the ultimate success.

This of course means that judging at an EIC is now difficult, nerve-racking and exhausting. As a competitor though I have seen judgements made at an EIC that left everyone surprised. How on earth did Fred beat George?

Having spent just a few years on the other side though I can now understand how much of a different perspective you can have – not just in viewing direction but being put in a judging position. As a spectator, you can choose to ignore any mistakes that your favourite player makes and really pay attention to the mistakes of their opponent. As a judge though you have to take into everything into account. If a “better” player makes a mistake then it is a point against them. You cannot just judge on your pre-defined impression of the two competitors. In a taikai, David can slay Goliath, not through clever tricks but by just making less mistakes and doing their forms better. 

It is this tension and the elimination of walls between people that drives competitors forwards, to strive even harder. I think these days, the difference between competitors from the quarter finals onwards is so thin that if you want to guarantee yourself winning, you cannot just be slightly better than your rivals, you have to be visibly and significantly better.

Zanoni s.: We are talking about 20 years, so there has certainly been an evolution of the European Iaido, in fact very often I feel lucky not to have to compete with the new emerging athletes who are really very good and much much better than us old people.

Roder s.: Of course! 15-20 years ago the medals were normally shared between the “old countries” like the UK, NL, FR and some others… If you see an EIC today really everyone is able to win. Doesn’t matter where the person is coming from. This is the best possible development of EIC for me personally!


Q: In your opinion, how important is the EIC for the European Iaido?

Watson s: I think it is tremendously important. 

We spend a significant part of the year training to be selected for our national squads. We go to squad training and as many events as we can to get ready. We prepare and travel and go to the pre-event seminar and all these other things. And then we are left with an approximate 95% chance that we will be beaten. If success at taikai is defined as winning the championships then many of us are going to be disappointed. It cannot be simply dependent on winning.

Therefore, I don’t think winning the championships is anywhere near as important as the event as a whole and giving iaidoka the opportunity to really challenge themselves. The enjoyment of coming together to train, to compete, to celebrate, to appreciate each other’s iaido; there is no other event like it. Even a grand European seminar tends to force people’s attention back in on themselves; a taikai does something else. If we were to have a taikai every month then it would become a routine task and something might suffer. This annual event gives a year to prepare oneself, to build up to it and to give it your very best in the short time that one is on a shiaijo.

I have no problem with people who simply don’t want to compete in budo, it is their prerogative of course.  I think taken to an extreme though, introversion in budo can lead to something a bit sickly. Too much taikai of course can do something equally as destructive. An exchange of ideas, of levels and of impressions (and drinks of course) make the EIC an extremely powerful tool for development. For many people that I know, the EIC is the reason for going to the dojo more than twice a week, for going to additional seminars, for taking part in smaller local taikai, for training at home. It isn’t an obsession of winning the EIC that is important, it is the ambition to do well at the EIC while being compared to your peers and being under the pressure of observation and judgement by others. It is, in many ways, different to an exam but it is also similar in other ways.

Zanoni s.: Obviously, in my opinion the European iaido championships are very important, it is a fundamental moment of meeting/confrontation, where you can grow a lot. Being able to observe exceptional performances and try to reproduce them plays an essential role in the growth of the iaido ecosystem.

Roder s.: Very very important!!!! Of course it is important for the development of Iaido in the EU and to develop it as colorful as possible with different ryuha and different Japanese teachers the people are following.

Maybe even more important is that so many people from various countries and cultures are gathering in a very warm and friendly way. Sure, we are competing but this takes only place at the shiai-jo

In these times where so many countries are even more separated from each other the behavior of Iaidoka in the EU and all the friendships which were built during the years are really touching my heart and I’m so thankful to be a part of this group which is not focusing on keeping the frontiers between the persons.

Q: What role has the EIC  played in the development of your Iaido?

Watson s: It used to empty my bank and damage my liver but these days I find something in the championships themselves which is highly rewarding, as I mentioned before. This is one truly effective chance to do “mitori geiko”. I would be lying if I suggested that the EIC was the main driving force in my iaido, it is not. It has forced me to look into myself to find better ways of doing and training iaido so that I could improve my possibilities of winning against rivals who were already extremely good and also training to beat me. I want to emphasise though, the objective has never been as important as the process. Of my aforementioned rivals I never really wanted to copy any one of them exactly, it is important to develop your own “style” based on your own strengths and weaknesses. I did want to improve qualities though which my rivals could beat me on: for example, Claudio Zanoni’s sharpness and Michael Simonini’s stability. 

So I would train myself while visualising how these other iaidoka did their iaido and try to be better than them at the qualities that they exceed in. I didn’t obsess about it, it became an interesting point of focus for the first few months after a championship.

If I had only ever met my rivals through seminars then I’m not sure that I would ever would have witnessed the “rawness” that they displayed in taikai, I would never have felt the excitement and tension and emotional involvement that a taikai brings out, I never would have experienced the feeling of losing when I thought I would win and winning when I thought I would lose. 

At the heart, budo is about developing and gaining a victory against yourself, it is not about winning medals. The majority of our training is thus done by ourselves or with a close group within a dojo. Iaido, more than most other budo, can be very introverted (which can be a good thing). Too much introversion isn’t a good thing though, I believe. I hope that through the EIC, I have knocked off some of the corners in my budo and become slightly more well-rounded (certainly my belly has become well-rounded in middle-age). It is a fact though that I have made many excellent friends, I have had many enjoyable experiences, learned iaido through other seniors, peers and juniors and have, by the blessing of having such wonderful rivals, a small community of fellow budoka who are the very foundations of some very valuable learning experiences.

Zanoni s.: My Iaido is indivisible from the European Championships, they grew up together, I have always lived and loved them jointly and I will continue to do so. Having friend-enemies like Andy, Michael, Peter, Yuki and many others, so much so that it would be too long to make a list now, has made my iaido grow a lot. I have always considered my opponents on the same level as myself, whoever they were, and this led me to always express myself to the best of my ability, then I also had a lot of luck. Having to try to do the utmost pushes you to train seriously and intensely trying to constantly overcome your limits and correct your mistakes, not to win but to try to express a iaido that I like and that I envy when I see it in my senseis or in Japan .

Roder s.: Quite important! It’s a kind of checkpoint for me how I’m developing myself and as I’m really nervous every time it is my way to face my fears… hopefully in a far far future I will be able to tame/control the dragons inside of me 😀

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