Sequencing your kendo DNA

(this article mentions kendo specifically, but can apply to any budo)

I often get email from people abroad wishing to join Eikenkai or Yoseikai pracises when travelling through Osaka, and the odd email about people wishing to look for dojo in places outside of the Kansai area. The usual format is “Hello, my name is X and I am Y grade.” After that I may get more information, for example where they practise, the duration of their experience, and – less commonly – their teachers name. People with experience in training in Japan, however, find that when first entering a dojo they are usually asked these questions in the reverse order, i.e. the initial question asked is “who is your sensei?”

Over the net, if someone tells me their age, duration of experience, and grade I can make a pretty good guess of where I think they should/may be technically. Generally. However, this is just what it is: a guess. I can’t possibly know how they do kendo or – more importantly – their attitude to it. This is where telling me your teacher becomes very important. If I know your teacher – either personally, through word of mouth, or reputation – its a much better indicator to me about your method, style, and purpose for practising, which is arguably more important than simply how good you are. Even if you are not so experienced now, if your teacher is well thought of then I know that you are going in the right direction. These people – i.e. those I can easily profile – I am more inclined to spend more of my time to help out. In the same vein, I know that the initial treatment you receive when attending a new dojo in Japan can be affected (both positively and negatively) depending on your answer to the initial “who is your sensei?” question.

Of course there are many times when people mention instructors whom I don’t know, and at that time mentioning your teachers-teacher can be useful. Since I study mainly under a couple of teachers, one being relatively well known (in Japan) the other not so, I often qualify the other sensei when I go to a new place by telling a little bit about his background.

How many people actually know their teachers teacher and what qualifies as a ‘teacher’ anyway? These questions might seem sudden, but they are an important part of this discussion. Let me tackle these questions in reverse.

A teacher is someone you learn from and study under for a (somewhat long) duration. Someone – at least in the earlier stages of your kendo career – you simply copy. If they are a good teacher you will never outgrow them. They should hopefully also be someone who has reached a proper teaching level. It follows that I do not – and I hope you don’t either – consider someone my teacher if I do kendo with them at seminars once or twice a year, even if that spans multiple years or even decades (if they are Japanese then they almost certainly don’t consider me their student in that situation anyway, despite what I or you may wish to believe).

Your teachers teacher is obviously someone that your teacher spent many years studying under, and is possibly someone who you have never met. What good is it knowing about them anyway? If your teacher is serious he/she probably limited themselves to a small number of instructors and studied under them for a good many years. What they learned from their teacher is what they imparted to you. So your teachers teacher has, in effect, influenced your own kendo as well (fundamentally so). So when someone asks you “who is your sensei?” or “whats your experience?” its not only much more useful (to the experienced questioner) but may even be more ‘correct’ (in a traditional manner) to tell them not only your immediate teacher, but your teachers teacher as well (especially if your teacher is not well known). If you list a few dojo’s or multiple names (or heaven forbid, you can’t think of anyone who you would gladly call your ‘sensei), then I’d say you’ve not just gone of on a dangerous tangent, but you are not doing ‘Kendo,’ at least in an orthodox manner.

Kendo is – as I’m sure you don’t need a reminder of – a physical tradition that is taught not through websites, books, and certainly not through video, but is a living tradition taught and learned physically and verbally. If knowing your teachers teacher is to (start to) know your own roots, then it follows that not having a teacher means you have no base.

Unnatural selection a.k.a. the bespectacled watchmaker

Like a lot of people when I was in my teens I often wondered if the strange people living in my home were actually my relatives – their ideas seemed so alien to me I suspected that I might have been adopted!!! As a poor student living hand to mouth I was often bitter about being born in a family that was far from wealthy. As you can guess, I was (am?!) quite an ungrateful son! We can’t choose to whom we are born nor (at the moment anyway) whats going to pop out in the maternity wing. Luckily, kendo-wise, we DO have the ability to choose, for want of a better word, our parent(s) and our genealogy.

What we are taught and study in the dojo is simply the physical (and verbal) teachings of generations of instructors. From your teacher you simply inherit what they were taught and these teachings are, if you will, part of your kendo DNA. Naturally, choosing a ‘bad’ teacher leads to a dubious (even bleak at times) future.

So when you go to new hospital or visit a new doctor and you are asked about any congenital conditions in your families background, maybe you will recall your first visit to a Japanese dojo when they asked you “Who is your sensei?”


Addendum

Obviously peoples learning experiences and situations are different. Some people may not even be interested in their teachers teacher or further down the line. But for those of us that take the study of kendo seriously, researching and discovering your roots is, I believe, vitally important.

The kanji for KEIKO means – as everyone knows – to ‘reflect’ on the ‘past.’ One basic meaning of this is ‘repetition’ – to repeat what you have (and your teacher, and their teacher, and… has) done before, polishing and refining it.

I remember *Ken-Zen dojo’s Ebihara-sensei stop and tell the class one day:

“Everything you do in the dojo has been done before. You might think you have made up some new technique or strategy for attacking but thats rubbish. Its all been done before. Just repeat kihon. This is keiko.”

(I paraphrase – I have a strong memory of the scene and the gist of what was said, but not the exact words. I was a young and immature kendoka in Ken-zen in the mid/late 90s… I hope my understanding of Ebihara-sensei’s words are correct, in content if not in words.)

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George

I'm the founder and chief editor of kenshi247.net. Amongst other things I am a high school kendo club coach, an avid practitioner of classical swordsmanship, a history student, and a vegetarian.

19 thoughts on “Sequencing your kendo DNA”

  1. Hey George,

    I haven’t been commenting a while here and this may be a bit long now. For my personal taste it’s a very interesting article! What it makes interesting is that I spend time thinking about almost every aspect of kendo like those other articles are about but not at all about this one.

    First I would like to say that from my experience traveling around for keiko in Japan (or elsewhere) the first question I get is unchallenged: “What country are you comming from?”. Followed by “Why is your Japanese so good?” be it really true or not.
    The question “Who’s your sensei?” I actually encountered rarely in this direct form. Rather I have heard “Where do you practice?” followed by “Who are your teachers there? Are they Japanese?”.

    Never the less I complete acknowledge that it’s a genuine question! I should be prepared to reply if someone asks.

    In my personal case this is difficult for me to tell, and at the moment I wouldn’t even really know what to say if asked this directly. I started kendo in a place that hasn’t seen any dansha in years. The instructors of every class were rotating.
    In fact in Germany many of the high ranking teachers particularly ask not to be called “sensei” since we do not follow the Japanese way of that relationship anyway.

    Since then I had to relocate multiple times in Europe and through Asia. I was practicing in a dozen clubs with dozens of teachers some higher or lower ranked, moderately famous or completely unknown to most.
    At the moment I have trouble thinking of who actually left the greatest impression on my kendo or from who I learned the most. Should I say the names of the rather famous teachers in order to give a satisfying reply? Should I name the teacher that I have been drinking beer last and gave me a valuable hint? Does it count if I name a sensei that I learned a lot from but at the moment I’m not practicing anymore because I had to move away again? I mean if I am not traveling to him to receive his guidance can he still be considered “my sensei”? Is the question aiming just for smalltalk or really to find out more about myself?

    That all said, I would like to add that I have asked the question myself when I met people, without actually thinking of a deeper meaning of my question. When I learned that someone I met is from a place I know or heard of I will ask if they know a particular teacher that I’m familiar with. I believe my motive is perhaps that I feel as if we as common kenshi are more like family if the person happens to have a teacher or even just a dojo-mate that I know.
    Kendoka does means “kendo-family” or “kendo-house” and in that regard we are all related in some way which is interesting and fun to learn about. Perhaps I should be sequencing my own kendo-DNA first, but I fear it won’t be as simple as stating just one name.

    Jan

  2. Hi Jan,

    Sorry for the late reply to your detailed comment.

    First the KA (家) of kendoKA should be translated as ‘professional’ or ‘expert’ or perhaps much more broadly as ‘practitioner’ … not house or family. It follows that you can’t be considered a kendoKA unless you have many years of experience under your belt. Your way of translating it as ‘family’ or ‘house’ makes for an interesting – and perhaps viable – alternative definition though.. slightly romanticised for my taste though!!

    Second, I think your case is not a unique one nowadays. People are a lot more mobile, and some professions see people baseless or perhaps spending a short amount of times here and there. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly bad for your kendo career. Not in as much a physical detriment, but you will potential miss out on the more deeper, 3 dimensional aspects of strict/tough training with the same people over years. Sure you can mimic the outer aspect, but the innards, the soul of budo practise is to be found in relationships with people (I posit), the most important person being your teacher.

    I think a good teacher-student relationship is the same as (ideally) a parent-child one. The players in this relationship have different roles, and its not an equal friendship by anymeans. It took me many years to understand this and I’m still struggling with respecting older people, as I grew up in a culture where this has mostly been forgotton (the UK). I believe that this is one of the best things that kendo practise can teach us.

    At anyrate, if you are doing kendo alone or with multiple people it basically means you are ‘outside of the stream’ of the tradition. I think keeping in this stream is one of the hardest challenges kendo has outside of Japan. I’ll leave it there for now!

  3. Jan,

    Whenever you find “Your Kendo isn’t enough”…who’s voice do you hear most often correcting whatever it is your doing wrong? If you hear one voice dominating all others, that is most likely your Sensei talking, putting you back on the right path.

    -Wayne

  4. Thanks you for the feedback!

    I really like your approach, Wayne. In fact I kind of can hear the advice of teachers and friends when I’m not satisfied with what I do. To bad it’s different voices for different of kinds of problems in my kendo, however there are one or two voices that are especially loud. 😉

    Thanks for your thoughts, George. Actually it’s not all bad having to travel as part of your life. It comes with some advantages. You can practice with and learn from a lot of different people and many of them, also some Japanese teachers, happen to have a very similar lifestyle. So I wouldn’t go that far and say that if you miss out on a very Japanese style teacher-student-relationship you can’t learn proper kendo. Some people might say the same about hazing juniors in university clubs.

  5. Thats cool, its your opinion. I disagree!

    I’d argue that those Japanese teachers have a stronger basis for their kendo and a lot more experience than yourself (you called them teachers after all), thus making a travelling lifestyle easier to cope with for them. I’m not quite sure what or who the Japanese teachers could be that you are referring to unless its znkr delegates. Normally they become one after they retire (past 60) and thus have had a lot of experience and are almost certainly individual teachers in their own right. At any rate, if you asked them who where their teachers, I bet they could answer and – if you feel brave – if you asked them are you their deshi you’d get a sucking in of teeth.

    fwiw I see casual kendo practitioners here in Japan quite often as well. They might vaguely name a teacher or two, but those teachers probably don’t bother with them too much because they don’t consider themselves their students. Ive yet to meet someone that couldn’t name a teacher they stuck with for years who made it to senior kodansha level, but thats another story.

    Wayne’s comment is indeed insightful !!!

  6. With “teachers” I was meaning to apply the general rule of referring to any 5dan above Japanese kenshi, not to teachers in a shogo (renshi, kyoshi, hanshi) sense.

    Sorry, I shouldn’t stretch these comments endlessly.
    Anyway, thanks for all the valuable input!

  7. I don’t want to continue this endlessly either but personally I wouldn’t consider someone with only 5dan (Japanese or not) to be a ‘teacher’ really (not to adults anyway). A ‘coach’ perhaps. I also know many people that are 6 or even 7dan level that have little teaching ability, so its not an automatic thing. Aaaanyway, I’m wandering onto a different path!! I hope you had a good xmas and enjoy your new-year.

  8. George

    Great post as ever. I agree with you completely. See the student and you see the teachers strengths and weaknesses. I have been lucky enough to have received instruction from some great teachers including Chiba sensei, Arima sensei and Sumi sensei nevertheless my teacher was, and remains Matsumoto Toshio sensei and no matter how hard, and for how long I try, I will never get close to emulating his kendo.

    Happy New Year.
    Geoff Salmon

  9. Hello George,
    hello budoka,

    At first I’d like to wish a happy new year to all of You!!!

    Thank You for this incredibly strong and important article, George!
    Picking the “teacher-issue” out as a central theme has been overdue.

    When I was reading it I began to understand the tremedous influence
    my teachers i.g. sensei had and still have (!!!) on my approach on the
    long way of bu-DO. This is, of course, apparent, but I have to admit, that
    I never thought about it before. Shame on me for this!!!

    I’m not a kendoka at all, but a karateka, and these thoughts may be interpreted
    a little bit differently at the karate-family, I’m guessing.
    Esp. in Germany there are so many fragmented “schools” (merely organizations)
    that refer to their highest personalities as their “trainer”, not as their”teacher” , especially not as “sensei”.
    The difference is very clear to me:
    a trainer can be changed every other month, since You pay him for a certain amount of lessons.
    Your teacher , or sensei, is the man who influenced the way You look at your Ryu or people and life in general, I think.

    Because they lost their traditional roots in a way – pretty much as You has described it – some people in budo support the idea of fighting sports by stressing the physical and athletic aspects, which in my opinion is a bad thing.
    When someone looses the connection to the tradition and the basics of his/her Ryu during the athletic hunt for points, ippon and wazari, there will be no new input or experience, since you start to practise the kumite-style exclusively and you forget the do-principles.

    Sorry for the long text, but those few lines of text of Yours had such a big impact on me, George.

    Greetings from Germany

    Andy

  10. Hi Andy,

    Happy new year and thanks for your long reply!! And I’m happy you got something from the article!!!

    Yes, I think that something has been lost somewhere. It happens in Japan as well of-course, but you can see the it more abroad. People with very little experience teaching, lack of clear distinction between those teaching and those learning, seminar-style sessions (where there is little or no hope of actually acquiring a teachers knowledge), etc etc… and thats just the tip of the iceberg. There are of course exceptions to this (very) wide-ranging comment of mine.

    Enjoy your training in 2012!

  11. I loved reading this article!~ The only part of the article where I was disappointed was the part where we could choose our Senseis. Why? Because I didn’t get to choose my parents, nor did I get to choose my Sensei because my father is my sensei haha. I’ve left my father’s dojo because of school reasons, and I agree, I cannot truly call any of the other senseis I have practiced under during my leave from my hometown, and I believe the senseis will not truly call me their student because I have not practiced with them for many years. Very enjoyable article! Please keep up the good work!

  12. Hello,

    I can’t help myself, but I found this article and especially the comments very interesting, so I have to reply. To be honest it showed me that there is an uncomfortable decision to be made in my Kendo career which I try not to think about too much…

    I’m german, 28y, just a beginner of Kendo (Ikkyu), started 3 1/2 years ago.
    My dojo is more or less known in Germany, but I’m pretty sure nobody outside has ever heard about it or my “Sensei”. He is a 5th Dan (but more closely to a 6th Dan I guess) and does Iaido and some Itto-Ryu aswell.
    When I started my training I was just a little shy and awed by his presence. From the very beginning he didn’t seem like a teacher at all,…but much more like a real sensei. I’m not alone with that impression.
    The more experienced I become, the more I know, the more I learn, the very much more increases my respect for my “Sensei” (he does not like himself being called Sensei).
    The more I get to know him as a person, as a man, as a teacher, …he becomes a rolemodel more and more and I have the feeling that I absolutely do not need another teacher no matter how high ranked he might be. I feel a “connection” somehow, that I can’t explain, and of course he might not know about it. But I don’t care what he might think about me, I would follow his advice as long as I can…

    But, I (and especially my girlfriend) want to move to Berlin sooner or later,…where there are a lot of 7th Dan teachers, more training, more dojos, and a lot more very good kenshi to do keiko with. And a much better city to live in!
    One or two years ago this would have been an easy thing to do,…I just needed a job and some money to move.
    Now, I still need a job and some money, but I feel that if I would move now, I would loose my sensei/teacher and I really don’t want that to happen.

    Maybe I should be more open to new people, maybe I know to little, maybe I overvalue my sensei, but maybe I’m just right and this is the sensei of my life.

    Any advice`?

  13. Felix,

    Thanks for commenting… but I’m not sure I can advise you! Personally, moving to a different city doesn’t mean you have to give up visiting your original sensei when you can. In fact, I’m sure you will appreciate your relationship with him even more given some distance. The problem you will face, however, might be that you get some very conflicting advice from the higher grades in the new city. Just remember that teacher and student relationships transcend ‘rank’ and that not everyone with physical aptitude actually ‘get’ the core teachings of kendo.

    As someone who has sacrificed a lot in search of an ideal kendo environment I’d say that you have to make these choices carefully. You can always take time to learn kendo, but without a job, a career, money, and stability you might never be able to study kendo. Think about it!!

  14. Hi George,

    Thanks for your answer…
    Actually it’s not about money or make a living, it’s only about weather I should stay under the teachings of the best sensei I can imagine, or weather that should not hold me back from moving elsewhere.

    The dojo is also a factor. We have extremely nice and wonderful people at our dojo, it is my favorite place to be. Unfortunately we don’t have so much experienced people at our club, only two yudansha + sensei. If I move, the club will loose one of the very few highly motivated people (I consider myself to be highly motivated), I would feel bad.

    Maybe it’s a “problem”, because there is nobody I can actually talk about that issue properly.
    My mother doesn’t care (and doesn’t understand kendo at all), my friends don’t understand, neither does my girlfriend. Difficult to decide everything alone…

    (pls don’t read my comments as over romantic or maudlin, I’m just thinking a lot about what to do…)

  15. I want to send you one of those odd emails asking for help to find a dojo in another part of Japan, but I can’t seem to find an email link anywhere.

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