A couple of weeks ago in the dojo a young kohai of mine, about 24 years old, attacked and knocked over one of the older sensei in his late 70s (needless to say, it wasn’t deliberate). The sensei fell backwards and knocked his head on the dojo floor. Keiko stopped and everyone rushed to him. He was a bit dazed but seemed alright. We took him to the edge of the dojo, removed all his bogu, gave him some water and generally made a fuss over him. The rest of the dojo resumed practise. In the end he was fine, just a bit embarrassed.

Over the years, I have come to believe that one of the most valuable benefits of kendo (budo) practise is that it allows me to mix with people over a wide age range. In my dojo alone, we have kids of 6 and below, all the way up to sensei in their late 70’s/early 80’s. Specifically, I am glad to have the chance to keiko with those whose age is far above mine.

Before I started serious practise of budo, I never sat around and talked to any older people – there was no chance to mix and, honestly, I never really had any interest. Even when I started kendo, I remember laughing at some older peoples kendo: “Look at that old guy…. he doesn’t deserve to be 6dan! I’m better than him and I’m only shodan!” etc. Back in the mid-90’s I was given a video of a 8dan tournament to watch but switched it off after 20 minutes; “boring” I thought. Its embarrassing to admit it now, but that’s how I thought.

Nowadays, I find myself surrounded by older sempai and sensei. I no longer feel the gulf in lifestyle nor disrespect for their physical abilities (I’m not yet 40 btw). I’ve come to realise that they to have been commuting to the dojo (as I do) for years and years, for a much longer span of time than me (50 or 60 years in some cases). I also realise that people do physically change for the worse over time, but that this doesn’t necessarily impact on their skill per-se… and even if it did, I am a lot more understanding of it and the frustration that can often accompany it.

One of my main sensei is in his mid 70s. During keiko I attack him as best as I can but he still hits me and pushes me back. My heart rate rises quickly and I feel myself on the back foot at all times. He just keeps coming… like a Terminator! He’s in the dojo almost every time and he pushes everyone to do their best kendo. He has my utmost respect. Recently, however, during post-keiko beers, some of my sempai have been wondering exactly how long he has left at this pace. I had never thought about that until it was mentioned.

Kendo (budo) are physical ‘arts’ that are passed down from generation to generation by physical contact. Its only natural that the guard changes, like the seasons do only at a slower pace. When the conversation turned to that above I felt anxious. If he wasn’t in the dojo I think i’d feel uneasy, almost groundless. But its bound to happen someday. I realised anew that its important to spend time with your elders, to listen to their stories and learn from their experience. After all, one day you will be one of those ‘old geezers / grandmas’ as well !!!!

While I was pondering the above, I got an invite to a facebook group celebrating the life of Takeshi Walter Yamaguchi sensei from California. I never had the chance to meet him (so perhaps it wasn’t my place) but I spent time looking at the pictures and reading peoples stories about him, his kendo past, and his teaching. I realised that he was someone that had many admirers and was deeply respected by his students and kendo colleagues. “Something to aspire to” I thought.

As an added bonus – with reference to the above – here is an excerpt from Honda Sotaro sensei’s Attitudes to Ji-geiko article available on the British Kendo Association website:

4. Ji-geiko with the Elderly

Here, difference in age is considered rather than the difference in grade. This section is about attitudes to Ji-geiko with someone elderly. It is strictly prohibited to do powerful Tai-atari and Tsuki to an elderly person in Ji-geiko. However there may be some elderly people who are bigger and have more power than you. In that case then, it might be okay, to some extent, to use your power and weight against them. If that is not the case, then, direct physical contact using Seme and Waza that rely too much on strength should be restrained. This does not mean cutting corners in the Ji-geiko. It is still important to try to complete your strike and to strike again in response to your opponent when their first strike is inadequate [but without Tai-atari or relying on physical power]. It is up to you to decide whether you can have a worthwhile Ji-geiko with an elderly person despite the age difference

Elderly Kendo-ka who have great experience may not be able to use many types of Waza and their speed and power may be inferior, but they have a brilliant ability to read the situation (their opponents intention, movement, Waza and so on) Elderly Kendo-ka are models of lifelong participation in Kendo. By observing in particular elderly high grade Kendo-ka doing Ji-geiko and by having Ji-geiko with them, we will receive many suggestions on how we should tackle Kendo, just like them, we will be able to enjoy it throughout our lives.