Even if Japanese is not our main language, in a kendo environment we often use the Japanese term “sensei” to mean teacher. What about the other 1/2 of the equation, the student? I can’t recall any Japanese terms being used in any of the 10+ countries I’ve had the fortune to do kendo in.
Traditionally, when someone joins a dojo there are a couple of terms used to express “student”: monkasei (門下生) and deshi (弟子). There are some other terms (e.g. 門弟 or 門人), but those two seem to be the main ones used. Unless you are part of a koryu dojo, or watch and read anime/manga, you will probably never come across the first term. The second term, however, is still used – though uncommonly I must admit – in the Japanese kendo community today.
As regular readers probably know, I run a high school kendo club here in Osaka. When I first started teaching my sensei turned to me and said:
Now you’ve got your own deshi.
This kind of stopped me on my tracks: “deshi… what should I do?” I thought.
Rather than attempt to explain the meaning of “deshi” myself, let me translate a piece from a 13 year old kendoka from Kyushu that I found in this months Kendo Jidai.
p.s. Please check out this old article after you read the one below.
The following essay was awarded the kantosho prize in the Junior High School section of the “32nd kendo youth research seminar.”
I am a deshi
Written by: Hasuda Tomoka
1st year Junior high school student (approx. 13yrs old)
Miyazaki prefecture, Miyazaki city, Shujakukan dojo
Suddenly, after keiko one day my sensei said “you are my deshi.” I was surprised at the suddenness of words, but I was also happy that he called me “deshi.” However, I somehow felt strange. Its because I didn’t actually understand the word “deshi” or what being one means or involves. I thought hard about the meaning of the word and searched out information about it in books and dictionaries. I discovered that “deshi” is part of a “teacher-student” relationship (師弟の関係). On one side of the coin we have the teacher – one with technical skill based on, and knowledge cultivated through experience – who imparts this through instruction; and on the other side we have the deshi, who learns from and studies under the teacher. In a dojo environment, the sensei are the teachers, and we are are the deshi.
So, what is a deshi’s job? What is a deshi supposed to do? A deshi has many various jobs to learn, including seeing off and meeting the sensei when they come to the dojo (shiai), getting any shopping thats needed (for the dojo and/or sensei), taking care of various things around the sensei (to do with the dojo) etc. In kendo, for example, tidying up/putting away the sensei’s bogu and making sure he is comfortable are both part of the deshi’s job.
I started taking tea to the sensei after keiko when I was a 6th grade primary school student (11/12yrs old). This started because my sensei said “bring me tea,” but now it just natural happens. During that short interval, sensei gives me praise, or brings my bad points to attention.
We also talk a lot about non-kendo things as well. What my future dreams are, whats going on at school, the taikai my sensei goes to, the change in seasons, etc all of these are valuable conversations for me. On the occasion that visitors came to keiko, I brought them tea as well. At that time I was told to sit in the corner and listen to the conversation (between the adults). I couldn’t really understand what was being talked about but my sensei said later “even if you can’t understand whats being said, even if you are not part of the conversation, listening to other peoples stories and conversation is important. There will come a time when you will understand.” When he said this to me I pondered that the chance to listen in on these conversations was something different when compared to my usual daily life, and approached these chats with a new feeling.
Another thing that I pay attention to is when my sensei leaves by car (after keiko). When I see him off, I wait until I can no longer see his car before turning away. I learned this after watching how the Riot Squad Police treated their sensei (its possible she is talking about the elite tokuren kenshi in her prefecture).
By continuing to be a deshi like this I have learned some good things, for example: how to use language properly (i.e. learning to by polite in Japanese) and how to be sensitive to nuances in peoples conversations, so now I am at ease with speaking to people who are my superior (i.e. by rank, age, profession, etc). There are other things as well, for example I am able to think and predict what sensei will say/want next, and am already in motion before anything is actually said.
At one time, my sensei told me that deshi have responsibilities. I didn’t really understand what these could be and I thought about it to myself. I think a deshi’s responsibility/job is to keep whats taught to them by their sensei and act within there limits, and to pass these teachings onto their kohai. I still don’t have the ability to do this, so in the meantime I will try my best at keiko, and aim to become a good sempai in the future.
At first I didn’t really know what it means to be a “deshi,” but thanks to everything that my sensei has taught me, I think I am getting closer to understanding the true meaning. Ever since becoming a deshi my sensei has shouted at me a lot; but since there few people around to scold me, I am thankful that he is there, as I know it for my own benefit.
From now on, through kendo and as a deshi/person, I want to keep learning about life.