Towards true internationalisation of kendo (1989) 剣道国際化

After the popularity of the last post I’ve decided to translate something else along the same theme. It comes from around the same time frame and is the work of another academic, though this time a sort of – whats the right word? – maverick of the Japanese kendo community: Baba Kinji sensei (kyoshi nanadan, Kokushikan university professor and kendo teacher of the Tsurugawa campus kendo club). I don’t mean “maverick” in a bad sense, rather, he’s someone who likes to speak his mind even if his opinion is different from others, and isn’t afraid to openly criticise. Needless to say these traits are not the norm in Japanese kendo circles and it makes for some interesting reading. At any rate, today’s translation is more inwardly looking, one that looks hard at kendo in Japan and finds fault.

Like the last translation this is a highly abridged and loosely translated section of a larger book (if you can read Japanese I’d urge you to read the original) and I believe that it can help act as a sort of barometer to see if and what has changed since the time of publication (26 years ago), both inside Japan and out.

Please remember that the book was published in 1989 and relies on experiences and anecdotes from the 80s. It also reflects a strong feeling of the difference and uniqueness of Japanese people, which might make reading it awkward for Europeans, north Americans, etc but is, for better or worse, still a strong trait within Japanese society in general even today.

2008-01


Introduction

Recently I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about the “internationalisation” of kendo. However, as I was watching the video of the 7th World Kendo Championships (WKC) in Seoul I was struck with the thought that the true “way” of kendo has deviated off onto a side road, as if it was somehow walking away by itself. Like fighting cocks, the Japanese team members themselves displayed a noisy and scrappy style of kendo, something completely distant from the traditional Japanese arts. This, I conjecture, is something you (i.e. Japanese readers) should probably know.

Japanese people are liars !?

It’s obviously not very easy to correctly explain and transmit an intangible cultural activity such as kendo to those from different cultures. Therefore let’s think about the problem from another angle: what do non-Japanese people seek from the pursuit of kendo?

Well, first of all, we Japanese are apt to say “kendo is great, if you try it out then you will understand” which is a kind of one-way, abbreviated non-explanation. Of course there are things that cannot be explained by words alone. A good example of this is the term “shitei-no-michi” (aka “shitei-doko” : the teacher and student follow the same path) which is something you have to comprehend perfectly, otherwise continuing kendo becomes a futile activity. Basically, if we look at this particular teaching from the perspective of internationalisation, we are saying that having a teacher is indispensable, otherwise what you are doing will be half-baked. Outside of Japan, however, they have one sensei last year, a different sensei this year (i.e. different teachers coming to do seminars or being dispatched by the ZNKR) …. which just ends up in their kendo being a mess. If you really think about this you will realise that this situation is of Japanese making.

In this way we should send Japanese kendoka abroad to listen and learn what and how other cultures think. Not understanding the local language, just teaching in one-direction in Japanese, or – for example when a student asks “Isn’t what you are teaching this year different from what the sensei taught last year?” – answering queries flippantly with “I don’t care who said what when. What I am teaching is correct, got it?” then returning back to Japan is unproductive. This is what Japanese people call “internationalisation.” Somehow this just seems like a normal Japanese training course (i.e. the writer doesn’t find those too impressive either).

So, dispatched Japanese teachers change back and forth over time. In the beginning the non-Japanese kenshi think “These Japanese teachers say different things” but in time that changes to “These Japanese teachers are liars.” In other words when a new teacher comes along he teaches something different to the one that came before, then he leaves and another comes who teaches something different again, etc, so eventually doubt arises in the non-Japanese kenshi’s mind: “What we were taught last year and have spent our time studying this past year was wrong?”

What is going on here is not that the teachers are liars, it’s that they are teaching to the kenshi’s level. What they should say is: “Compared to the last time I came your skill has naturally increased, so I am now teaching you something in line with your increase in ability, it’s just that you don’t realise this.” Misunderstandings happen both due to lack of mutual communication and understanding between dispatched teachers (past and present) and because they don’t explicitly explain things to the non-Japanese kenshi. The root cause of this is that many (Japanese) kendoka are self-conceited, overly competitive, and obstinate. This is why they try to force their kendo on others. However, when all is said and done, it is true that they do actually attempt to correct mistaken teachings.

Thinking back to the “shitei-no-michi” term mentioned above I want to relate an anecdote I have concerning my visits to Belgium and France over the last couple of years. One teacher over there was teaching this to the local kenshi: “Strike hard from above your head, so much so to dent the opponents head!” Another teacher said to me: “Don’t deliberately let these local kenshi hit you. If you do then they’ll think they have won.” Obviously the way that we Japanese learned kendo from our sempai and sensei, that is, to pull our students level up through allowing them to strike you (hikitate-geiko), is impossible in such a situation. Naturally, “shitei-no-michi” cannot occur.

In other words, teaching there does not conform to the principles of kendo and the true “way” that they are seeking is not being transmitted. We Japanese, I think, have completely misunderstood the non-Japanese kenshi.

We Japanese tend to pay respect to European and American people but look down on those from SE Asia and Africa. In the university lectures I give (180 people) the exchange students (20 people) monopolise the front rows of the lecture theatre and are earnest in their studies. When I asked them what they thought of Japanese people the Europeans and Americans said “Japanese people are shy” whereas the SE Asians said “Japanese people are arrogant and unkind.” I think this captures precisely the polar attributes of the Japanese people, and is cause for deep consideration. During classes the Asian exchange students took to the lessons with enthusiasm – as if having the room to themselves – and I felt anxious for the future of the Japanese youths.

In other words, if we are to popularise the good points of Japan we must understand the good points of others. If you don’t understand the culture or the characteristics of the non-Japanese people you teach then instruction will likely become a one-way affair.

Samurai: the attraction of Japan

Above and beyond what we have just discussed, what is it that non-Japanese people seek through kendo? The fact is that most people became interested in Japanese culture before they discovered kendo. When I asked people about the question when I was teaching in Belgium and France they replied that they were interested in the fact that essence of the European ideal of mediaeval chivalry (long dead in Europe) was still alive in Japan in the form of Bushido. This is why a German kendoka acquaintance of mine believed “sports kendo” to be silly, and why it is very common for non-Japanese to think that the inclusion of kendo in the olympics is nonsense. Thinking from their perspective we might say: “Sorry, but when it comes to sport we are far ahead of you Japanese. The spirit of chivalry, however, died out a long time ago here, but in Japan you still have Bushido.”

The most important vehicle for transmitting this culture in Japanese history were the samurai. In the distant past the samurai started out as bodyguards but rose to the top of the social ladder by the Edo period. Nowadays, Japanese people have a romantic image/ideal of the samurai, and many non-Japanese people have fallen in love with this romanticised image. I hear even that sometimes non-Japanese people even ask “Is there still people walking about with swords in Japan?” Before we talk about internationalisation surely we must first teach the correct history.

Simply increasing the number of kendo practitioners abroad is half-baked internationalisation, and if we continue changing /dispatching teachers in-and-out, then this internationalisation process will remain half-baked.

What’s the true meaning of “internationalisation” ?

The first thing we must do if we want to measure the internationalisation process is to plant a young teacher abroad, probably for more than 10 years. However, most people that are sent abroad are people who have just graduated and have free time, someone who is jobless (perhaps retired?), someone who’s family kindly let’s them go abroad for a year, etc, this type of person. I think that this “side job” attitude is rude to non-Japanese people. If someone wants to go abroad they should do so because they believe strongly that it’s something they wish to do. They should graduate from a specialist school with this international mission in mind. I believe that we should create a route like this, and it’s the International Kendo Federations job to ensure that it happens.

One university teacher said this to me: “The All Japan Kendo Federation (ZNKR) selected me to teach abroad and dispatched me to country X to teach. It was a horrible experience.” What happened was that he was selected and sent to the country without any background information about the kendo situation there at all. He was sent there for 2 months and received absolutely no backup from the ZNKR (i.e. he was stranded in a foreign country with no help). As it was a ZNKR dispatch he initially took up the job with enthusiasm but once there he was given only a small stipend and survived barely on it and free gifts (i.e. from the local kenshi). I’ll say it plainly – as he was a university teacher (and thus would still receive salary through the 2 month break) the ZNKR treated the dispatch as simply something ‘extra’ and assumed he’d get by fine without being reimbursed with much. In other words, the dispatch system runs cheaply because it uses people it can send abroad as part of their job (i.e. police and teachers) in an effort to cut down costs. This is how the dispatch system runs. Obviously – if we remove those teachers that treat the dispatch as simply a holiday (i.e. who don’t care anyway) – it’s impossible for kendo to take root proper in this circumstance. The actual state of affairs is actually worse: the dispatched pay for their own travel and the foreign kendo federation pays for accommodation.

In the end the dispatch system is simply one in name only. It’s something to add to your kendo resume and bring up in conversation, to say you worked in this and that country over x period of time – it adds to the value of your name. The content of the system is indeed poor.

(Comment: the underlying message of this part suggests to me that the writer believes that pretty much all dispatched teachers went in holiday mode and were not serious about teaching abroad. Those that were serious, however, found many barriers in their paths, including – but not limited to – financial ones.)

The kendo community cries out a chorus of “internationalisation, internationalisation” but in the end the conversation simply comes down to the increase in kendo population abroad and how this is great. Internationalisation is not as simple as this: judging that an increase in population equals success/progress is dangerous. Unless we teach kendo as a part of the larger culture of Japan we cannot meet the enthusiasm of non-Japanese kendoka. Therefore, we Japanese should take it upon ourselves to revise and study our understanding of our own culture, then teach kendo as a part of that culture when we go abroad.

If we want to measure the internationalisation process of kendo we should re-think seriously the teacher dispatch system, and be create a system that allows us to send teachers over to foreign countries for at least 10 years at a time. The ZNKR (IKF) should be the central organisation for making this financially viable by setting up a foundation and eliciting contributions.

On the other side, we Japanese should work to understand what it is that non-Japanese kendoka are seeking. It’s not just “We Japanese kenshi are strong so we’ll teach you some techniques” that is, we shouldn’t only teach technical ability. Rather, our teaching must first begin by instruction on Japanese culture.

After I came home after teaching abroad some non-Japanese kenshi – travelling a far distance and at their own expense – came to my dojo. When in Japan they study not only kendo, but iaido, sumo wrestling, noh, kabuki, etc. Depending on their zeal for Japanese culture I sometimes took them to Nara, Kamakura, etc, and show them the culture that kendo was created from. My own university students whom I teach kendo to also study the same things, for if they don’t their kendo will just fall into “sports kendo.” Many of my students sometimes go to keiko at keishicho, various prefectural police departments, other universities, etc that is, they have a chance to compare kendo in various situations. They come back from these places and tell me various things, sometimes asking difficult questions: “x dojo’s kendo is simply about power and speed” , “y dojo doesn’t have a kamidana, why not?” , “z dojo has a kamidana but they don’t bow to it, why is that? What’s the purpose of practising kendo in that dojo then?” etc etc. These students collect various experiences and then, within themselves, evaluate what is right and wrong. They become sensitive to the varied ways kendo exists, and never act in an careless manner. I think we too (i.e. Japanese kenshi as a whole when travelling abroad) should be careful to be observant and thoughtful of others (i.e. non Japanese).

Rejecting sport kendo

Many non-Japanese people who – after waking up to Japanese culture and choosing, from within all the myriad traditional arts, kendo as a path – state that their experience/image of kendo after beginning it is different to what they thought before starting. They feel frustrated because they are limited by age and power and, in that way, kendo becomes to be the same as other sports. For example, many non-Japanese state that European fencing decides bouts by electricity and the traditional aspect has been completely removed. Many are therefore naturally disappointed with sports where the crowd cheers and shouts to encourage participants. People have said to me that they chose to study kendo because it wasn’t simply a sport concerned with winning and losing.

Kendo doesn’t equal culture, kendo equals sport (i.e. this is what many non-Japanese kenshi end up thinking after beginning to practise it). We Japanese should wake up to our own culture and make a proper study of it: many non-Japanese people can be said to already have done this and thus have a high ideal of what kendo should be. However, most Japanese teach half-heartedly and often speak ambiguously or evasively when the topic of culture comes up. Basically, Japanese people lack understanding of their own culture, so it doesn’t matter how times a Japanese person says “kendo is budo” the non-Japanese kenshi is not fooled. As many of them study more about Japan than Japanese people I’m tempted to say that there may be a fraction of those non-Japanese kenshi that could actually teach us about our own culture (including kendo).

Based on my experience, looking at those non-Japanese people that study kendo in various countries today – and apologies if this seems rude – many people start kendo during middle-age and don’t really have the (physical) qualities that would suggest future mastery. In amongst them I haven’t seen anyone who was an elite sportsman in the past. Therefore, up until now, Japanese teachers have taught casually and at a leisurely pace.

An example of this casual approach to foreign kendo was seen at the recent world kendo championships in Seoul. Korean kendo has (unexpectedly) increased in ability so much that Japan was caught unprepared. Their kendo has improved so much the top kendo teacher in Japan stated: “We will loose to Korea very soon, watch and see!”

Against this threat it seems as the association is gathering together the best Japanese competitors and teaching them how to win at shiai. If foreign countries gathered together elite sportsmen and did the same thing then kendo would move one step closer to something that relies solely on speed and power, and Japanese kendo would fear for it’s future. If this happens then kendo will end up going the same way as judo: class divisions, rules spelled out minutely, etc and kendo might even become “KENDO” and not “剣道” (in Korea they call kendo “kumdo”).

In the end, we could say that modern kendo has completely lost the feeling of being an art. In other words, it has become sport-like, with renowned kenshi being those endowed with youth and strength. Older people cannot compete – in shiai or keiko – with healthy bodied young people. It is this reliance on physique, endurance, and power that led me to start questioning the state of kendo. I think we must try to set kendo free of this state.

Kendo presents itself as something that can be studied whether you are young or old, male or female. In spite of this you sometimes get some mother come along who asks the question: “Am I too old to start kendo?” Some often then qualify this with: “In other sports you run around a lot so that’s impossible for me, but kendo seems like no problem! Onegaishimasu!” …….

On the other hand if you were to watch what could be said to be called the top level shiai on the world (of course, it’s not) – Japan vs Korea – what do you think the spectator who started kendo later in life thinks? They probably see kendo that is nothing but speed, power, youth, and force, and consider that this is not the type of kendo they could physically do. At the end of the day we teach the exact same kendo to everybody, whether they are young or old, beginner or experienced, male or female. However (i.e. looking at shiai) you would imagine it’s not an activity that can be carried out into old age. I believe this state of affairs is contrary to what is spelled out in the Concept of Kendo and one of the primary causes of disappointment of kendoka throughout the world.

Sympathetic teaching across spheres

I heard that there were some Germans that came to Japan to study kendo. They practised very hard – attacking and striking, taiatari, uchikomi, etc – but soon enough people started to get injured here and there. The German kenshi said nothing themselves, but obviously this was the result of how they had been taught. Age, ability, individual manner, enthusiasm, etc these are all things you have to take into account when teaching people. btw those German kenshi were doing the same type of keiko as sports-university students, so it was no wonder that injuries occurred.

It’s obvious that kendo should be taught in stages depending upon the students. If you try to teach the old and young, male and female in exactly the same way then there will be problems. For example when it comes to universities with kendo clubs in the Kanto area there are about 100 clubs. However, some clubs have no instructors and others are studying sports science. Someone teaching kendo at a sports-science university club shouldn’t turn around and say of the club with no instructors “their kendo is awful.” Teachers must learn to develop the ability to recognise the level of the students in front of them and instruct them based on that. They should never use the excuse that students are beginners and thus teach them casually or with a leisurely attitude. The reality is that this is a chronic problem. Learning how to teach based on level is of course difficult, but it is also interesting and challenging.

When I went to Belgium and France to teach one local said this to me: “I thought that the pain felt when struck during keiko was something to be endured. However, when I did keiko with you I enjoyed sparring and it even felt satisfying to be struck.” In other words, they had been taught that it was natural to feel pain when struck….

Asking for everyone’s thoughts afterwards the consensus was: “It seems that we have somehow misunderstood what we have been taught. We have mistaken the meaning of ‘strike firmly and strongly.’ Everyone struck by you today said it not only felt satisfying but there was a pleasant sting to the strike. More than this though, we really felt as if we had truly been struck. It was quite a strange experience: normally in a sporty activity you feel disappointment at losing, however this time, instead, we felt admiration. Keiko was a relaxing experience and we found ourselves copying your kendo.”

If we just teach simple things then people will not only get bored quickly, but they will hit a dead end. In this case it’s just like doing an aerobics class for a while then quitting because you didn’t loose weight. This (simple, technique only only kendo) is not what non-Japanese people are after: they are interested in learning the deepest depths of the mysteries of Japanese culture though the study of kendo. I believe this is what Japanese kenshi should also be seeking but, as described before, they have (due to lack of study) lost sight of the true essence of kendo, as if they were a frog stuck in a well. Japanese kendo teachers now no longer talk about things like “elegance,” “refinement,” “mystique,” and “grace” when they teach, and isn’t the fact that they are often surprised – and a little bit sad – when they listen to the (educated) words of the European or American kendo student indicative of a problem?

Towards true “internationalisation” of kendo

I believe that “shitei-no-michi” is something that can work abroad as well as in Japan. However, since this is already almost lost in Japan how can those in other countries realistically seek this? In this way I feel that that we have betrayed the expectations of people from other countries.

A few years ago I went with another teacher abroad to teach. However, on the very first day we arrived he simply left everything up to me. Not only were the students in trouble, but so was I – because I was just one Japanese teacher replacing another. Eventually, when I was leaving to return to Japan, I was approached by the students. They asked me to become their sensei. However this wasn’t something I could easily say yes to as I felt as if I’d be stealing another teachers students… In the end, of course, I refused. Well, it’s not exactly as if I refused, but how could I accept if they had numerous teachers before me? The first person to teach someone is their teacher. I acknowledge and accept this responsibility when I teach someone for the first time. In the traditional arts the first thing you must to is to choose a teacher and build a relationship with him or her. Unfortunately, I’m afraid to say, those students didn’t have the chance to do this.

If a teacher accepts this responsibility then they should realise that this responsibility doesn’t only apply when in the dojo. It’s the teachers responsibility to look after them if they come to Japan. This is part of the “way.” When abroad some teachers say “When you come to Japan please get in touch!” but when the non-Japanese people actually do turn up (i.e. they didn’t actually think they would) they simply say “Um, ok… I’ll introduce you to a place I know” (i.e. which might not necessarily be anything to do with them). This not only causes potential problems for the dojo they are handed off too, but it often ends up with the non-Japanese kenshi being shuttled around multiple dojo, like a gypsy, with no main base dojo, and their trip doesn’t quite go as good as it could have. In the worst case scenario some people may think: “Why the hell did I come to Japan anyway…?!” before finally returning home without learning anything. It’s also not uncommon for people to end up being taken under the wing and run around by some random koryu teacher from the countryside.

There was one French woman who wanted to come to Japan and study kendo under me. After making sure she understood what the “way” was I allowed her to come over. However, respecting the fact that she was not only a career woman but older, I knew that it was not appropriate for her to try and live with the students in the dormitory and so I booked her a hotel. For the same reason I knew that it would be pushing things to do the same volume of kendo as the students so I reduced that and, emphasising the “kendo as culture” aspect, sent her to view some traditional arts.

As a teacher, shouldn’t you be prepared to do things like this? Going abroad to teach with a leisurely manner is surely bad. Where going may be easy, if non-Japanese students come it can cause problems. Therefore, many teachers go abroad with a holiday spirit, and teach kendo only casually (i.e. they don’t want to make real student-teacher relationships). Don’t you think that this is awful?

If the people who go abroad don’t have a strong desire to spread kendo then true internationalisation cannot occur. We must also not overlook the problems caused due to the language barrier as well, namely that it raises walls, means that teaching goes in one direction, and finally allows instruction to become casual. Translators who understand kendo are vital (note that he doesn’t suggest that the dispatched teachers learn other languages!). For the sake of true internationalisation we need to develop people with these skills. For this, I believe, those teaching the Japanese youth today are vitally important.

I want to see impressive competitors in the World Kendo Championships that make people think: “Wow, I want to be able to do kendo like that!” At the moment, however, we see people randomly tsuki-ing each other, trying to push each other over, not saying thank-you to your opponent after the match, and even saying things like: “That guy didn’t really win, he was awarded an ippon only because of the bad shinpan.” Obviously, in a situation like this, how can the spirit of international develop? I believe it is important to immediately attempt to fix the current win-at-all-costs state of the world kendo championships.

Watching the overwhelming defeat of Japanese judo at the Seoul Olympics (1988, Japan won only one gold medal) I couldn’t help imagining the future of Japanese kendo. In less than one year (between the World Championships in 1987 where Japan won 4 gold medals) non-Japanese judoka refined their skills so much that they easily defeated Japanese players.

In the past I had a friend who was studying in America. During a shiai he faced a muscle-bound black man who overcame him with his speed. Later he discovered that the man was only shodan. My friend said: “He body slammed me like an American football player… there was nothing that I (and by implication, or any other Japanese person) could do. We’d best be careful.”

A friend who has a senior position in the Korean kendo federation said to me: “If kendo became an olympic event then Korea would soon win. Not only is the budget here completely different to that in Japan (i.e. they have a lot more), but the country aids us in selecting and training those with the most potential. However, it’s my wish that we (Japanese and Korean) who understand the true spirit of kendo teach the young kendoka of this country.” This gentlemen really has a tremendous attitude.

Like this, the sports world is one of victory, nationalism, and money. Not only this but in the effort for victory people are turning to sports science and even taking life-threatening drugs. The original merits of the olympic spirit are gone, that is the idea of competing for the glory of your country rather than personal honour, and the ideal of amateurism. You can guess what would happen to kendo if placed in amongst all this. Some people are even saying out loud perhaps the only way for Japanese kendo to survive is if we split it into two: one that places emphasis on technical ability, and another that is more spiritual in nature.

What is the best direction for kendo in the future? I think top sensei should quickly consolidate their opinions point the direction to us. They should explain the Concept of Kendo in an easier to understand manner, without fine complicated words, so that everyone can comprehend it. But is the current Japanese kendo community even working towards what was written in the Concept of Kendo? It seems that maybe discussion of the subject has become taboo. We Japanese are happy that we weren’t mistaken about choosing to study kendo and that it has enriched our lives. It’s my desire that non-Japanese kenshi can feel this way too.

2011-08


Comments

Before I start making comments please remember that the piece above was originally published in 1989 and was based on experiences from (what seems like) the mid/late-80s. I suspect that much has changed since then, but I’d like to address at couple of the core issues raised within the article, specifically the teacher-dispatch system and Japanese kenshi’s lack of study (tackled in reverse order).

First of all, how much about their own culture do Japanese person actually know? Well, in my experience, I’d say that the answer for your average person is: “as much as the average British person knows about British culture” … that is, they know a lot about the whole culture in general, but probably not much about the actual specifics. When it comes to kendo, the average Japanese kenshi will know more than your average Japanese non-kenshi, but not – you may be surprised to hear – to a deep level. This is something I’ve actually had (drunken!) arguments with hachidan sensei about. The fact of the matter is that your average Japanese kenshi doesn’t seem too much interested in learning more than the surface history of kendo, nor do they attempt to study older kenjutsu or even iaido (dare I mention kendo no kata?!). Of course, I’m talking about an average kenshi here – some people are indeed highly knowledgeable.

Therefore, Baba sensei’s conjecture in this piece that Japanese kenshi don’t know their own culture is – generally – a fairly accurate statement I believe, and still stands today. He obviously believes that an instructor sent abroad to teach kendo must teach kendo as something that is part of Japanese culture, therefore, they must be fluent in that culture as a whole (i.e. not limited to kendo knowledge). If Japanese kenshi don’t bother studying deeply even about kendo (a situation that in general still exists today) how can they then go and teach abroad? The answer is, of course, they can only teach the technical side of kendo, which Baba sensei believes is not enough.

The second theme that Baba sensei tackles repeatedly throughout this piece is the teacher-dispatch system (something set-up specifically to spread “Japanese kendo” abroad). Now, I assume things have changed since the 80s, but is this actually so? Not so long ago I was personally drinking with a recently retired hachidan sensei who was sent abroad for a couple of months to teach. What he told me was this: “I was excited to go and serious about teaching kendo abroad but as soon as the plane took off I realised that the other sensei were acting as if they were going on holiday. They spent those two months drinking, eating, sightseeing, and casually teaching kendo. During jigeiko they didn’t make much effort, after which they then heaped praise on the students… because if they didn’t praise them they wouldn’t get invited back again.” That sensei was visibly disappointed when he told me the story.

Perhaps this is not everyone’s experience nowadays, but it does seem to still happen. I know of at least one kendo seminar where the accompanying grading is seen as an “easy pass” (i.e. the invited sensei seem to pass people because they know if they don’t then they won’t get invited back) and I’ve had friends contact me from two different continents (they don’t know each other) to complain about a particular teacher who was blatantly (according to their perception) uninterested in running a teaching seminar and who just did kaeshi-dou to everyone during jigeiko (i.e. he was lazy in jigeiko).

Baba-sensei mentions “shitei-no-michi” a couple of times – the idea that teachers and students are bound together and follow the same path (one of the more traditional Japanese teaching methods). In Japan this means that you learn under the teacher (traditionally to the exclusion of others) daily over years in an effort to acquire their kendo. Obviously, meeting a sensei now and again (whether they be dispatched or are running an annual seminar) and doing keiko with them for a few minutes here and there does not constitute a teacher-student relationship, no matter what the student may wish. Both the casual manner of the sensei’s holiday-mode demeanour, and the fobbing off of non-Japanese kenshi that (surprisingly!) do roll-up to Japan to other dojo, is proof of this in Baba sensei’s eyes. And yes, fobbing off still happens today.

So, what do you think? Should kendo be taught as cultural thing, or can (should) it survive on it’s own, stripped of any cultural baggage? If that’s the case, what happens to the “internationalisation” aspect? Has the teacher-dispatch system improved over the last nearly 30 years? Has the lack of traditional teacher-student relationships caused problems in the transmission of kendo and thus hurt or damaged the “internationalisation” process? etc etc etc etc etc….. opinions/experiences please!

In my eyes, at least, Baba sensei is suggesting that any faults in the internationalisation process lie squarely with Japanese kenshi themselves. I believe he brings up some good points.

Final note (caveat)

As with any translation work this piece (and all the others on kenshi247.net) is naturally interpretative in nature. Any mistake in nuance or error in translation is unintentional. Apologies.


Source

剣道芸術論。馬場欽次。体育とスポーツ出版社。1989発行。

Eikenkai February 2015 英剣会

Today’s Eikenkai practise – the first of 2015 – was absolutely packed. 40 kenshi from shodan to nanadan representing five prefectures (Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Mie, Nagoya) and five countries (Japan, the UK, Spain, Thailand, America) got together for over two hours of intense keiko.

In amongst the participants there those that have competed at the highest level, namely the All Japan Championships, the Todofuken Championships, the Kokutai national championships, and past and present European and World Championships. The mix of professions represented was also very rich: teachers, scientists, politicians, journalists, radio DJs, cooks… as well as high school and university students.

In other-words, a quite eclectic bunch!!!

The session today consisted of about one hour of kihon practise (kirikaeshi, men, kote, kote-men, tsuki, oji waza, and uchikomi) followed – after a short break – by over an hour of jigeiko. As you can imagine, with such a wide-range of ages, grades, and experience, it made for an excellent bash.

For more information about Eikenkai, including this years schedule, please visit the page on this site.

Cheers!

Thoughts on the internationalisation of kendo (1992) 剣道国際化

The following is a highly abridged and loosely translated excerpt from a book entitled Gendai Kendo (“Modern kendo”) published in 1992. The book consists of articles (based on lectures) by academics discussing kendo in it’s then current situation and was sponsored by the Ministry of Education, All Japan Kendo Association (ZNKR), and the All Japan Sport Universities Association.

Going through the book one chapter that I found of particular interest was that concerning the state of kendo outside of Japan. I found it of interest because – perhaps unusually for a Japanese kendo book – it looks at the issue relatively objectively. What piqued my interest in particular was:

1. It gives us a view to how international kendo was viewed from a Japanese perspective 20+ years ago (which isn’t so long ago).

2. It gives us a chance to consider what has or hasn’t improved since then – in both kendo outside of Japan and attitudes towards non-Japanese kenshi by Japanese practitioners.

Rather than translate the whole chapter on international kendo, I have abridged two sections to make them shorter, highlighting what I think are the most interesting points, and presented them in three parts. Note that the book itself discusses kendo in quite a broad manner, this is only one section (the smallest) of a larger book.

Note also that you probably won’t agree with some of the points raised or statements made. That’s partially why I chose to present it.

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Part 1: Introduction

For most of us the idea of the internationalisation of kendo doesn’t occur to us until we actually meet and do keiko with a non-Japanese person. At that time we may think “In what way should I do kendo with the person in front of me?” and may even start to think about how is it that kendo is transmitted abroad, or in what manner you should teach kendo to them.

When asked a question by a person from a different culture with different opinions, whether they just be starting kendo or are already experienced, considering how kendo is (in Japan) and how Japanese people think, how would you answer them? Many non-Japanese people – if they have a question, a complaint, or a desire – may argue with their teacher over it. How would you tackle this situation and reply/explain in a satisfactory way to them? Consider this a chance to reconsider and look-over not only Japanese kendo, but your own kendo.

Even today in Japan there are areas of kendo where we could say Japan is not perfect. For example the tendency for competition results to be over-valued resulting in the popularity of “tapping kendo” or “scrappy kendo.” Although the theme of this section is about the internationalisation of kendo, I’d like the readers to also consider deeply what exactly is “Japanese kendo” as well.

3-Edinburgh


Part 2: Thinking about the internationalisation of kendo

Although many (Japanese) people may realise that activities like judo and karate are popular abroad they may, usually because they have no information on the matter, consider that the internationalisation of kendo has nothing to do with them. Rather than spending a lot of money and effort travelling abroad to teach kendo to foreigners – which they might not even be able to understand – wouldn’t it be better if all that energy was spend on solving Japan’s own kendo problems first? This is the reality of how many people think. Kasahara sensei (1st director of the international kendo federation) said:

“Surely, since different peoples have their own tradition and cultures, it’s not appropriate to impose kendo on them saying that it is the only way to mould the human spirit. This type of thinking reminds me of political slogans used during the war that said Japan deserved to dominate the world. Don’t you think this is arrogant and Disrespectful?

Can people from other cultures even comprehend Japanese thinking? I think that this is quite difficult and have little confidence that they can. However, there are something like 70,000 people practising kendo abroad that do have some sort of comprehension of the matter. It doesn’t matter if this number doesn’t increase as long as they can deepen their understanding. I believe that this is where kendo’s international mission lies. “

Reasons such as “It’s impossible for foreigners to understand Japanese thinking” or “There is no access to equipment or teachers” should not be used as excuses.

Japan as a country has always imported ideas and objects from other countries, in old times it was China and Korea, and in recent times Europe and America. We should have pride in attempting to export one of our own creations – that is, kendo – to other countries. It can be a conduit to deeper understanding between Japan and other cultures, and, in such a manner, perhaps even contribute in a way to world peace.

When it comes to the attempting to define the “internationalising” of budo we have two directions:

1. Generalise the theory, method of execution, etc. i.e. make it universal.

2. Keeping it’s essential nature intact, transmit it to the local peoples, all the while respecting local traditions, cultures, and independent nature.

To say it bluntly: through influencing foreign kendo practitioners way of thinking through kendo (i.e. making them understand Japanese tradition), kendo will be able to become international and keep it’s essential nature. Kendo, therefore, should be done in the Japanese manner rather than allowing people from other countries to adapt it to their local culture as they see fit. However, of course, we should not egotistically attempt to impose our “Japanese-ness” on them and must make great efforts (self-sacrifice) to understand the various situations that exist in countries outside of our own.

The reality of kendo’s current diffusion abroad and it’s history

In 1991 there were 30 member countries (31 associations – Hawaii being separate from America) of the international kendo federation (then known as IKF, now re-branded as FIK). According to a 1988 survey into the number of kendo participants, the worldwide total (minus Japan) was 220,000 (note that Korea reported in 1989 a kendo population of 250,000). The countries with the largest reported populations were: Taiwan (2,000), America and France (1,500), Brazil (1,400), Canada (1,300), Germany (700) etc. Most countries reported a population of 200 or under. Out of these numbers there were about 35,000 yudansha (shodan and above), of which around 30,000 were shodan or nidan level. We can probably imagine that only a fraction of these people actually practise kendo regularly

Starting in 1975 the ZNKR have been running a summer gasshuku for foreign kenshi. In amongst the participants were those who don’t just do shinai kendo, but also koryu, iaido, etc etc. some we may even say are more knowledgeable about Japanese traditional customs than many Japanese people themselves. Some have – due to their hard effort and pioneering spirit – even uncovered new information about budo during their research. Under their careful scrutiny we may be able to see budo from new vantage points and budo as a whole may benefit from their endeavours, even over and above internationalisation itself.

Let’s break the history of kendo’s diffusion into 3 main areas:

1. Kendo exported by Japanese immigrants (America, Hawaii, Brazil, western Canada, etc)

In these countries the majority of the people running the organisations or that become national team members are of Japanese descent. People of non-Japanese descent are increasing and kendo from these areas is already producing strong kenshi.

2. Kendo that was originally planted through through the army and education system that went on to adapt to and take root in those societies (Korea, Taiwan)

(i.e. territories occupied by Imperial Japan – the text obviously doesn’t word it like this. Note that there is no mention of the then current situation in China.)

Prior to the war these both of these countries had extremely strong kendo kenshi stationed here, those that had undergone harsh training in Japan. Also, because of proximity to Japan, there was a lot of interacting kendo-wise between these countries and Japan. It was at this time that kendo became embedded.

These countries are not only able to self-support themselves equipment wise (i.e. in shinai and bogu), but they also export to other places including Japan. This is a particular strength of these countries.

Korea, in particular, because of kendo’s place in the military, schools, and universities, is blessed with an abundance of young kenshi. With this infrastructure – and with a lot of opportunities to practise – Korea has developed kenshi with a lot of speed and power, and are on the brink of creating a sensation in the international kendo scene.

3. Countries that sprouted only after WW2, i.e. those that were nurtured (Europe, South East Asia, Oceania, etc).

Recently European kendo has been increasing in strength. There are many reasons for this: perhaps it’s converts from judo or karate due to injury, or perhaps it’s due to increased information about kendo via books, films, demonstrations, etc. The European kendo federation (EKF) is the worlds biggest kendo federation (by scale), the European championships have been held 10 times now, and there are now six 6th dans in Europe (not including Japanese people that stay in Europe).

However, in European kendo there is a big imbalance: most people begin kendo late and the complete lack of older experienced teachers (in their 50s or above). This is a major problem.

It was only last year that the first Australian 6th dan was born. South East Asia and Oceania are not yet mature.

Problems in diffusing kendo abroad

Let’s have a look at some examples of past obstacles that impeded kendo popularisation as well as some things we need to think about for the future.

1. Problems with regional associations

Despite the kendo population abroad being relatively low there sometimes occurs a lack of harmony in local organisations, for example:

– for over 10 years both the UK and France had two competing rival organisations;
– recently the Italian federation was expelled from the IKF;
– the American federation has undergone internal disputes.

2. Dispatching (Japanese) teachers long-term and the training and development of local teachers

Kendo, for most kenshi, is an expensive business: the cost of bogu and shinai, postage and packing, tax applied at customs, the non-access to repair, etc etc. If you combine this with organisations with very few members and countries with bad economies, then we could say that importing a Japanese teacher long-term for teaching purposes is nothing less than a herculean task. Surely we’d need contributions from international exchange organisations, the Japan amateur sports association, and the ZNKR. Also, due to the fact that only police or university teachers could take a long time of work, there would be a tendency for instructors to only be of this type.

We should endeavour to create a system that would both allow instructors from all backgrounds be posted abroad long-term and provide adequate training opportunity and resources to develop non-Japanese people that come to Japan.

3. Kendo equipment

Currently the ZNKR are collecting second-hand bogu and sending it abroad every year. We should aim to take this one step further and help people to produce and repair bogu and shinai abroad.

4. Grading problems

Currently you may, if you have permission from your own organisation, take a grading under a different organisation. Looking at the IKF rules we can see that you can join a grading panel if you have 2 dan’s above the grade being tested for. However, this means that there is almost nowhere you can sit 5th dan and if you want to sit 6th or 7th dan you have no option but either come to Japan or do it at a world kendo championships. At the same time as this reality exists each federation can – completely at its own discretion – award 9th or 10th dan.

5. The IKFs structural and financial independence

At this point in time the IKF doesn’t have any incoming money except yearly fees from regional federations, thus there is no option for the ZNKR to continue supporting it.

6. The olympic question

At this point in time the Korean association is the main body arguing for kendo’s inclusion in the Olympics. The IKF committees cautious approach to this is that whilst it’s ok to promote kendo as a ‘combative’ activity, it is also worried about the harmful effects that can be caused to kendo through promoting kendo as a win-at-all-costs sport.

Joining the IOC would not mean kendo would become an olympic event but, either way, it’s now time to resolve the issue. In order to do this we must seriously consider what is best for the correct development of kendo.

In conclusion

As you can see there are many issues that need addressed in the matter of the internationalisation of kendo. However, we Japanese – if we have faith in ourselves and are willing to rethink the matter seriously – can help transmit correct kendo abroad and plant the seeds for it’s internationalisation.

Through the medium of kendo we can deepen understanding between people of different cultures and promote world peace.

6. Men-tsuke


Part 3: Kendo abroad (based on experience in Italy and France in the 1970s-80s)

1. Leadership and grades

Whereas in Japan sport is something mainly occurs in school (and thus performed by students) in Europe this happens in sports clubs. Unlike Japan, people don’t have a strong loyalty to the groups they join so they easily quit and change their clubs, or come only intermittently.

In Europe, along with the lack of both public awareness and equipment, there is also a lack of kendo instructors. You can even find people with shodan who are leading clubs. Leaders who have shiai success or are of high grades often make note of those facts on leaflets to attract new members. In other words, there seemed to be a strong (over) emphasis on shiai results and grades.

In Japan a grade such as shodan may be given easily in order to encourage the student or to promote kendo, whereas in France there is far more expected of candidates when attempting grades such as shodan and nidan. With this in mind, you can probably imagine the value placed on grades in Europe.

In Europe, people open dojo when they are shodan, and by the time they are 4th or 5th dan they are seen as being mature and accomplished kenshi. It’s this reason that much is expected of grades such as shodan. If you were to pass someone simply to encourage them or to promote kendo they might go back to wherever it was they were from and start attempting to teach, as if they had the authority of a high graded person. Invariably they teach incorrectly.

Within clubs people line up not in sempai-kohai order, but by grade. During keiko people would listen earnestly to senior grades but outside of class time everybody becomes equal. If you were to look at people’s activity before and after class you would see nobody acting haughty. In other words, the atmosphere created in Japanese dojo due to the sempai-kohai system is almost nowhere to be seen. Also, everyone calls each other by their first name.

2. Keiko

Most keiko occurs after work, usually about 8-10pm. Most gym floors have no spring and are consequently hard. Some clubs practise on top of mats used for judo.

In both France and Italy Japanese is used during warmups, suburi, and basics practise. Maybe this makes it a little bit difficult for beginners to understand what’s going on during practise.

In almost all clubs people bring their bokuto along with their shinai, and spend anything from 30mins to an hour practising kata before donning bogu. Everybody apart from complete beginners has no problems with kata. If you compare a European kenshi to a Japanese kenshi of the same grade level the European invariably has spent more time practising kata.

In France it seems that they have been taught by Japanese teachers well: when they attack they do so straight on without any tricky movements. Of course, because there are many beginners and many started only when they became adults, their movements are a bit stiff and their strikes lacking snap, but they attack powerfully. There are some members of the French national team whose do kendo better than many young Japanese kenshi.

In Italy, which doesn’t really have a long kendo history, there are a lot of people who attack randomly. Not only that, but the strikes are heavy and painful. I believe this is partly due to the immature state of kendo there, but also partly because they are aiming to “cut” with the shinai, and they believe that “cutting” requires strength.

3. Dojo customs

The reiho used in European clubs is the same as found in Japan. However, although before and during keiko everyone walks around barefoot, once keiko is finished people freely wander around inside the “dojo” with their shoes on.

In Japan we usually clean the dojo before and after keiko, but in France and Italy they don’t even make an effort to try. I think this is because they believe it’s not the job of the club using the facilities, but the job of the person in charge of the facilities itself.

4. Difference in keiko volume

There is a massive difference between the keiko of volume of Japanese kenshi and non-Japanese kenshi. One of the reasons is that non-Japanese kenshi are not in the habit of practising on consecutive days. In France, the average person practises only twice a week. Even the most hard working of French kenshi only practises 4 times per week.

It is the custom for French (and Italian) married couples to continually express love to each other during daily life. Consequently, if one of the couple were to give up their family time to go to keiko then it would harm their relationship. I didn’t see any husbands completely ignore their wives and do as they pleased. The most earnest kenshi tend to be single or divorced.

One of the top European kendo leaders, a French 6th dan, asked me: “Why is it that Japanese sensei do kendo every day, what’s the point? French people find it difficult to understand.” The reason Japanese kenshi do kendo everyday is because it is possible. Policemen/women and teachers do kendo as part of their job, and they (as kendo professionals/specialists) influence the kendo community as a whole.

Even though we Japanese think that daily kendo is important Europeans, who have different cultures and customs, think it’s nonsense to do kendo everyday as kendo specialists do. This is an important thing to consider when thinking about the internationalising of kendo.

Another reason to consider about why there is a difference in keiko volume is due to age. In Japan we start kendo as kids and get into the habit of practising consecutively when we are young. In Europe, however, kendo is not a familiar activity and most people meet kendo by accident (and are older). Due to this many people rely on strength too much, and movement is often not smooth. This is probably the same situation of Japanese people who begin as adults.

The best way to deal with this would be to practise a lot but, as these people are adults, if you try to force them into something they are not happy with they will simply quit. Even if someone wants to start kendo most simply show up once or twice and disappear. All clubs constantly worry how to increase their members.

Conclusion

It’s not easy to do kendo outside of Japan, and as a beginner it’s hard to continue. In this way it is very hard to increase the kendo population abroad. However, if people get over the beginning stage then, even if they don’t practise very often, they do try hard. I think this is the result of efforts made by instructors in local areas.

In Europe, with it’s different culture(s) and difficulty in doing daily practise, it may be difficult to produce strong competitive kenshi. However, without worrying about shiai success, we can say that European kendo is one that values kendo kata and basic practise.

Although it may be difficult to raise up kenshi in Europe to practise daily without break throughout their lives (like Japanese shugyo) there are many that say they are seeking “Japanese kendo” and many more than want to come to Japan to practise kendo.

Kihon practice


Comment

“Internationalisation” – “Global Society” – these are key phrases used in Japan since I’ve lived here (12 years) and probably since long before then. However, from my experience at least, this “internationalisation” tends to be a one-way affair: a process of teaching other countries about Japan’s culture while, at the same time, resisting outside pressure to change. But what about kendo? Is this also a one-way affair? Are there parts – or attitudes – that should change? Has kendo successfully internationalised itself? etc etc etc. What do you think?

It’s highly possible that the people who wrote the sections above (who, by the way, I have deliberately left unnamed) have changed their opinions in the 23 years since original publication… or maybe they haven’t, I don’t know. This is what they thought at that time. Whether you agree or disagree with the whole thing or parts of it, I believe it does at least open a small window into the not-so-distant past, and hopefully leads to some discussion in the pub!!! Enjoy.


Source

セミナール:現代剣道。全国教育系大学剣道連盟編。1992発行。

Bowing to the “7”

Editors note:

The following is a guest post by NYC Ken-Zen dojo’s iaido instructor, Pam Parker. Last year Pam became one of only a small handful of American’s to pass the iaido nanadan exam in Japan (and probably the first American female) and as such I immediately asked her for her thoughts on the matter. She ruminated a little bit over it, but finally here they are!!

Note that the article is in two halves: an ‘omote’ part which describes how the testing process works, and an ‘ura’ part that is more personal in nature.


This is the omote (for people who are not familiar with Iaido).

The All Japan Kendo Federation holds high-level exams for Iaido, the sword-drawing art that is one of three arts under its aegis, twice a year, in November and in June-July. These are national-level tests, and are attended by candidates from all over the world. These twice-yearly tests are for 6th and 7th-degree black belt (called ‘dan’) ranks. The highest degree available nowadays is 8th-dan. The test for that rank is only held once a year, in Kyoto at the beginning of May. The November tests are in Tokyo, with more than 300 people testing. The summer tests are in two locations each year, one in the East of Japan, and the other in the West. These tests each have fewer candidates.

I went to Tokyo in November of 2013, trying for 7th-dan for the first time. I did not pass. This July (2014), I went to the Western part of Japan, to Okayama Prefecture, to try again. This test was scheduled for Friday, July 11.

All of my Japanese teachers have been from the Western part of Japan: Hiroshima, Okayama and Kobe. So I had some confidence based on that. Also, I had been working very hard to improve since November.

I went to Kobe (just west of Osaka) on Friday, July 4, for a week of preparation. Every day, sometimes once, sometimes twice, I practiced with my teacher, who holds 8th dan, in his private school.

The day before the test, we traveled to Ako City, for practice with some of my teacher’s other students. Thursday evening we continued on to Okayama City, checking into a hotel a short walk from the testing venue. Three of us who were testing walked over to the Momotaro Arena, which was open, to get a look at the place. The main arena is very big, with a nice floor.

Friday morning, we returned. We had some time to warm up (in a very hot secondary space), with our teacher. The 6th-dan candidates went first, signing in, and lining up. The whole group is divided by age, into a younger group on the left, and an older group on the right. There are two sets of judges, 6 per each age-group. The candidates go forward, four at a time, to perform the kata (prescribed sets of techniques) required. When all the 6th-dan candidates were finished (about 100 people), the judges retired; and the administrators sat down to calculate the results.

Meanwhile the 7th-dan candidates signed in, and prepared to line up. While we were waiting, the results were posted, and we saw that of the three 6-dan candidates from our group, one passed. This was his second attempt. (Jubilation all around!)

After 7th-degree candidates completed the sign-in process, we lined up and the judges came back out. I was in the 6th row, of the younger group, on the far left side. There were 7 rows, and a similar number on the older group’s side. There were 3 candidates from Italy (1 for 6th-dan and 2 for 7th-dan); together we made up the entire contingent of non-Japanese.

Each row stands up together, walks out, and waits for the head judge to give the order to begin. There is a 6-minute time limit. When all 4 candidates in the row are finished, the head judge dismisses the group, and calls in the next.

Afterwards I got a lot of handshakes, and did a lot of bowing and thanking. It turns out that I am the first non-Japanese 7th-dan from the US, to pass this test in Japan (Editor: see comments), and the first woman, also. For some perspective, while there are lots of Japanese 7th-dans (I attend a yearly seminar with 40-50 7th-dans), and a fair number of Japanese women who hold this rank, in the US there are a total of 4 7th-dans, three of whom are men, Japanese or Japanese-American. The passing percentage for this exam was 20%.

That was the omote.

Next is the ura: Bowing to the “7”

It’s started already…bows from students who only nodded to me before; bows from students who, before, only bowed if I specifically taught them. I need to remember that it’s the 7 they are bowing to, not me. I am no different than I was a week ago.

Over the course of preparing for 7th dan (which began the day after my 6th dan examination), I have written a great deal, in training notebooks, in compilations of notes from seminars and gasshuku. Mostly on the order of ‘KenZen solo; Seitei Mae.’ Every once in a while, something more abstract, or wafty, depending on your point of view, like ‘what am I doing? I’m doing THIS.’ All the writing was in service of practice, correction and intensification. Not elucidation.

Senior student jokes that I have become ‘a destination;’ buys a guestbook. Visitors sign it.

But, what am I doing? I do feel some increase in my sense of responsibility. Also I am experiencing an increase in the clarity of my feeling of the relationship between my responsibilities (to teach, to model good Budo behavior) and my practice. This is not to claim an increase in understanding, more like an increase in density.

I wish I understood this better.

My students want to receive their menjo from my hands; they will wait if I am not available. I manage to figure this out with only a little assistance.

In Merida, Mexico, at the CLAK (Latin American Kendo Championships) I am given the use of a separate gym, to teach Iaido while the Kendo taikai goes on. I think to myself, “Wow, they are trusting me to take these folks.” A bit later, I think, “But, I’m a 7th dan, so that’s just fine.”

In the ‘sensei’ bus, a recently promoted 8th dan Kendo Sensei asked me if I had changed because of the 7th dan. He said he had certainly experienced changes because of his 8th-dan.

We are planning a big party to celebrate the 7th dan. Certainly we never did this before. Two of (the 3) local 7th dans told me we should have a party. No-one ever suggested such a thing (to celebrate a new rank of mine) before. The party is a smashing success. It perfectly conveys my conviction that this 7th-dan is good for all of us.

Not even two weeks later I get told, quite clearly, that I have to act like a 7th dan: show stronger leadership. But it’s OK; I’m a 7th dan, I can do it.

2009-pam-kyoto

Sotoku-doji: the chicken and the egg, the zen master and the disciple 啐啄同時

There is a Japanese phrase from zen teachings that reads:

啐啄同時 – Sotoku-doji

The image it suggests is this:

Imagine a chicken and her egg. When the chick is about to hatch it makes a scratching noise inside the shell. Hearing it, the mother chicken comes along and gently taps on the outside of the shell, aiding the chick to step out into the world.

In zen this refers to the relationship between the master and disciple. After years of strict shugyo the disciple reaches the cusp of enlightenment. Sensing this, the master says the right word or does the right thing just at the right time, leading the student to comprehend, to finally perceive Truth, to reach enlightenment.


Long time kenshi 24/7 readers probably already realised that I spend a lot of time reflecting on not only how to teach (kendo), but watching how it is taught by others. Over the years my initial approach to teaching has changed massively and, although I hope I still remain quite a flexible person in this regard, I have come to develop/realise my own preferred style of both teaching and learning. In particular, I don’t like overly verbose instruction and will only rarely (and to direct students or kohai) give advice. Even then, any advice given is always done with a caveat, allowing the advised to reflect and decide what – if any – change or response is needed, and in what manner. After all, even 15 year old beginning students are independent individuals who must take control of their own progress.

Living in Japan and thinking like this can be difficult sometimes. First is the expected role of the teacher in Japanese society, in both the classroom and the dojo: instruction occurs in a single direction with generally no option for discussion. Dojo in school environments are usually highly regimented and strongly hierarchical. Teachers can sometimes seem like overlords of sort, shouting and barking orders (sometimes even on the shiaijo). Any success of school teams is often attributed to the teacher’s instruction rather than the students hard work (remember that students stream in and out whereas some teachers can stay decades in the same school). Outside of the school environment things tend to be much less one-way but, still, the hierarchy exists. If a hachidan says that water is wine, there may be little you can do but agree.

Modern kendo (as well as Japans education system) was, of course, developed in a highly militarised period of Japanese history and, after the war, many teachers (again, in the classroom and in the dojo) had a background of military training and/or service. This, I suspect at least in part, helps to explain the current situation.

Anyway – somehow I’ve drifted in a different direction – the reason I am thinking about this now is that the other day someone gave me unasked for advice. Of course there was no ill-will involved, but I couldn’t help thinking that the person wasn’t taking into account the possibility that I might be busy working on other things. His advice was actually quite useful but – and this is the key message of this article – I didn’t actually need nor want it at just that time. (Please don’t think me ungrateful … I was actually busy working on something else at that time.)

Lets go back to the beginning: had the mother chicken broken the shell too early then the chick may have hatched underdeveloped and died or lived a short life. If she hadn’t heard the noise of the chicks scratching, and had it not been strong enough, then the chick would’ve never hatched. In the same way, the true zen master would only give the right advice at the right time.

jo2


Things to perhaps consider when teaching

* Asking questions vs giving advice

Sometimes it’s better to wait for the student to ask a question before dishing out random advice, this way you can respond to what the student is seeking/working on, rather than deciding by yourself what you think they should do. If they don’t ask questions then leave them be.

* Giving advice vs sharing perspective

I often embed advice in stories of past experience or discussion about what I am personally working on. Although it might seem a roundabout way, I think that some students are more engaged and interested in these informal chats.

* Causing reflection rather than giving orders

Of course, how you teach depends a lot on the personality of the individual students under you but, in general, I think reflection and self-realisation/decision is one of the keys to not only progress in general, but the students long-term shugyo strategy.

* Having a spirit of empathy and understanding

Teaching requires that you are in-tune with your students and you understand their needs. Don’t attempt to force the students to do exactly as you do…. because they are not you.


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