‘Traditional’ kendo pedagogy and abuse

My area as some of you know is teaching kendo to young people. In high school I teach kendo as an elective subject to 12 and 13 year olds. One tool I have found very useful for firing their imaginations is telling them stories from Japanese history, stories that most of us have read or heard at some point I’m sure.

The other day I was telling the story about the student who went to learn from a teacher in the mountains but instead of waza, he was made to cook and clean for sensei. Most of my students even today have seen the movie “The Karate Kid” so this was something they recognised. The next part of the story tells how the teacher starts hitting the student out of the blue, to the extent that the student is on edge at all times, never sure when the next blow is coming. The resolution of the story is, of course, the moment when the student spontaneously reacts and protects himself from the unseen blow, the teacher says, “Now we may begin”. I realised as I finished that some students were looking at me puzzled as if to say, “so what is the moral of that story?” Indeed what is it? Is it that there is something inherently abusive in traditional sword pedagogy?

Later though it struck me (pun intended) that there are some parents that raise their children like this even today. Perhaps with less deliberate intent than the sensei in the story, but for some reason the aim seems to be to toughen up, or to unsettle. Except with these kids all they are left with is the feeling of never being safe, always on edge. This means when they get to school they are the first to get in fights, they see danger all around them, they react in extremis to the slightest stress, and generally are the unhappiest of all. Of course they can’t concentrate and usually resent those who can, so they actively seek to disrupt. They also bond quickly and instinctively with other kids whose histories match their own. Those who don’t receive help from a trusted adult in how to deal with this internalised sense of constant danger usually go on to self-medicate in harmful ways.

All of us who do kendo and other sword arts are stuck in the paradox of practicing a traditional art within a contemporary setting. Further, we are engaged in transmitting militaristic mindsets to people who will (by and large) never require them. Ironically, what I know of koryu pedagogy is much less authoritarian than kendo. It is the high school and university budo clubs with the worst teaching practices in this area (granted this ‘teaching’ often comes from fellow club members and not instructors). Hazing and bastardisation are still practiced in many of these clubs: Kokushikan University’s reputation as a kendo powerhouse was in no way dimished by the tragedy that occured there some years ago. One might even argue that it was enhanced. This is what perpetuates the kind of behaviour that in any other context would be considered at best, anti-social, and at worst, criminal. On the one hand our 21st Century sensibilities tut-tut these practices, but on the other we secretly admire what appears to be extreme rigour and fortitude.

Which reaction is appropriate? Where is the line drawn between hard training and abuse? How much responsibility does the sensei bear for the well-being of the student? What are the protective factors that allow hard training without lasting psychological or physical damage? How far can a sensei push their student (or a sempai push their kohai) before the relationship (or the individual) is broken? Should the instructor be at all concerned with that? Which training tools, if any, are anti-social in their effect? How do we measure the effect of our training methods, particularly on younger kendoka?

These questions are important ones I think, as more of us non-Japanese kenshi become instructors. They are particularly important outside Japan, but I think that within Japanese society as well the cultural climate that supported the old styles of teaching is rapidly changing. It is imperative for us to understand what our teaching methods are, and to examine whether they are best for both the art and for our students.  b

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Ben Sheppard

Ben practises kendo in Victoria, Australia.

4 thoughts on “‘Traditional’ kendo pedagogy and abuse”

  1. Hi Ben,

    Interesting post. As you know, I am the coach of my kendo club here and I actively visit other schools and meet many other (far more experienced than I) kendo coaches. First thing is that in schools nowadays in Japan there is a zero tolerance policy towards hazing and bullying. Zero. Of-course it does happen (out of sight of the teachers) and pressure is often put on kids mentally rather than physically, but I would say the days where it was a common thing seem to be gone.

    When kids commit suicide or are injured physically it becomes national news…. so the education ministry has cracked down on the situation fiercely.

    I think that this is/was not a kendo specific thing at all, but is widespread amongst all club activities and – to a certain extent – permeates other parts of Japanese society as well (certain office situations etc).

    I look forward to your visit to my school in November and the ensuing chat in the izakaya!

  2. A couple thoughts…

    I don’t think a certain severity is necessarily out of place in modern budo — that understanding that one is learning skills intended to cause harm to another, that these skills are about life and death, is necessary, IMO, to getting the full benefit of what budo has to offer. Otherwise, particularly in Japan, there’s absolutely no difference between studying kendo and pursuing baseball. As George implies, the severity found in kendo clubs (high school, college, and semi-pro) is found in all the “taiiku-kei” (physical education type) clubs, like judo, baseball, and soccer, and even to a certain extent to the “bunka-kei” (cultural type) clubs. Basic training in the military is physically and mentally difficult and exhausting, and a tincture of that probably belongs in so-called “martial ways”.

    And while koryu pedagogy may seem less authoritarian, that isn’t (or wasn’t) necessarily the case. Toshinaga-sensei, the 20th headmaster of Shinkage-ryu, related stories of very hard training as a child, and the fear he felt of his grandfather, who’d spent most of his life with the topknot of the samurai. Likewise, Nobuharu-sensei, the 21st headmaster, reportedly said that his earliest memory from childhood was having water splashed on him after he’d passed out in the dojo from training, around the age of 6 or 7. (A funny aside: Toshinaga-sensei’s father, Toshichika, was extremely strict on his son. But when Toshinaga-sensei was likewise strict with his sons, Toshichika, now a doting grandfather, admonished him for being too hard!) Also, by many accounts the retention rate of new students at Toshinaga-sensei’s dojo was about 10% after a month. He was so tough on his students that many quit after one day. But then, in Toshinaga-sensei’s mind, he actually was training students to be real swordsmen, with the possibility of taking the sword into battle.

    What I think koryu lacks compared to more modern budo is a certain regimentation that is a holdover from early Showa schools. Even today, even in elementary schools, children are taught to stand “at attention” and “at ease”, and how to march. This militaristic regimentation was naturally much stronger pre-war, and I think it’s influence still resonates down to kendo and judo (and western sports) today.

    What is vitally important is that hard training be accompanied by the complete responsibility the instructor takes for his deshi’s well-being. In Japanese culture, the sensei or the sempai may be strict, even harsh, with their juniors, but (ideally) they are invested in their growth and viability and temper their severity with generosity and concern. It’s very much like a parent/child relationship. For obvious reasons, this kind of interplay may not be appropriate in all cultures. But to me, the difference between hard training and abuse is that abuse is one-sided. The instructor is harsh without caring for the student, or to gratify his own ego.

  3. You know, my sessions at school are strict. When we are not doing kendo its a different matter though (eating, chatting, laughing, fixing shinai, whatever). Many non-Japanese people would almost certainly deem the way I sometimes work as a motodachi during uchikomi/jigeiko as borderline abuse (I certainly couldn’t get away with it in a British school). I have also seen things that would 100% be regarded as abuse in a western country…. but the parents where in the room when these things happened, and actually apologised to the the sensei afterwards.

    One of the different things over here is that people who do kendo (and parents who make their kids do kendo) know exactly what they are getting into. Choosing this despite some of these possible negative areas speaks volumes (and reaches the fundamental heart of kendo practise).

    My koryu experience is different mainly because of the difference in nature between sparring and kata practise as well as the path kendo took in the first 1/2 of the 20th century.

    p.s. Josh – great reply!!!!

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