The following is a rough translation of a very small part of a much larger essay about REIGI (etiquette) that was published in the July 2013 edition of Kendo Nippon. The author is Iwatate Saburo sensei. The translated section in particular caught my eye so I thought i’d share it here and use it as the basis of a longer discussion.
“In the kendo community we have the dan-i and shogo system. Its fair to say that achievement of these grades/titles is one of the main aims behind many peoples practice. Whatever age you may become, having something to aim for/challenge at is a way to keep growing (as a person). Kendo-wise, even though the body starts to loose its strength around about the 50s or 60s we can – if we keiko properly – still attempt gradings. People in their 60s and 70s still pass 6th and 7th dan, and even kendo’s highest grade of 8th dan.
But there is one thing that I’d like you to keep in mind – you shouldn’t equate grade with peoples nature. There are some people with low kendo grades who have a high social standing, and many people that have are good people. If you forget this and simply value people on their grades then you are committing a terrible crime.”
Ideally speaking, we all start kendo when we are young and our grade steadily climbs as we grow older (see The Kendo Lifecycle). Work-wise as well, we enter our companies or institutions as young men or women and, over the years, promotion generally follows. In other words age usually, in some manner, equates with both grade and work or social status (a sweeping statement I admit).
Japan in the Edo period was a place with a rigid vertical class hierarchy with almost no chance of upward social mobility: birth decided your place in society. Within classes themselves there would be different groups with perhaps ranking between them. Individuals identity was based on being a member of a group. Within the group, relationships were both vertical and horizontal and an individuals standing within the group was a lot more flexible than within society at large. Age and gender, however, impacted this flexibility or lack thereof. Since the 19th century, in the beginning at the behest of Western Imperialism, society has seen itself change rapidly, sometimes causing traditional structures to implode and sometimes forming often uncomfortable fusions with Western ideas. Modern Japan is one such a society.
Compared to where I grew up (the highlands of Scotland) modern Japanese society is one where respect for older people is still strong. I think that this is almost certainly a good thing but I’ve also seen many occasions where older people have acted incredibly high-handed and self-centered at the expense of those around them. With the potential double-authority giving power of age and grade, many of these experiences have happened in the dojo.
K ‘sensei’ (I must admit I really don’t want to use the term sensei here) is 7dan and in his mid-50’s. When I first came to Osaka he was there at every keiko session. Naturally I went up to practise with him. Watching the people in front of me fence I realised that he was quite rough and pushed people about quite a lot. When it came to my turn I bowed, sonkyo-ed, and stood up. He immediately went to move in at me and I just stepped in and attempted men. It hit. I’m not sure who was more surprised, him or me, but immediately he went wild: pushing, shoving, shouting etc. After 2 minutes of this (he cut it short) he ended it. When I bowed at him he looked away, not bowing back. ‘Thats done it’ I thought.
The next time I saw him I said ‘konbanwa’ and he simply ignored me. Attempting to right any wrong I might have done I lined up for him at keiko. After waiting 10 minutes in the line he simply waved me away with his hand and went on to continue to fence the person after me. This continued for about 6 months when I just gave up. Luckily the dojo had fifteen 7dans so it really wasn’t a loss for me.
After about a year or so in the dojo I plucked up the courage to ask one of my sempai about him. K-sensei was deeply unpopular. Most of the serious kendoka never went to him for keiko, and all the other sensei ignored him. In fact, he only used to keiko with people who were adult beginners or, I increasingly noticed, women. In other words, people who (he assumed) he could dominate. After a while, those beginners and the women would see through this and attempt to escape doing keiko with him, but he would actually grab them and make them fight him. I heard stories from other kendo friends that he attended a couple of other dojo and did exactly the same thing. Eventually, as the kendoka he had been ignoring for years started grading up to 4th, 5th, and 6th dan, he disappeared.
My interaction with K taught me one thing: that age and grade don’t tell you much about the man himself. I started to pay attention to not only the ability of the teachers around me, but how they treated others (and more importantly, how others treated them), and thought about the perception I was giving off about myself through my keiko manner.
I realised, slowly at first, how people did or didn’t discriminate depending on the person in front of them. That is, some people did the same kendo against anyone that came along – i.e they judged the person solely on their ability, not on who they are or what type of person they may be – whereas others carefully changed the type of kendo they did to respond to the person in front of them. If kendo is a pursuit of knowledge and the dojo is a kind of microcosm of society, then it make sense that the latter approach is the more mature. Please note that I’m not talking about people ‘dumbing down’ their kendo, or somehow holding back, but more of a change in the ‘feeling’ of the keiko itself, rather than any physical modification (though with much older people, some physical modification is necessary).
To attempt to wind this rambling post up I’ll finish with an example. Within the kendo community police kendo teachers (preferably 8dan, but not necessary) are the top of the food chain – their position has the highest prestige and they are the most respected. But, when looking at Japanese society at a macro level, you realise that actually their job is not a particularly high status one… in fact, most people don’t even know that the profession exists. When compared with people their own age who entered a normal ‘salary man’ life, they are also not highly payed. Their technical preeminence, of course, is without question, but that doesn’t automatically equate with moral or some sort of spiritual authority.
What all this means to me personally is that while I apply a certain automatic respect to people older and more experienced than myself, I withhold the right to remove that if they have questionable characters, even if they are 8dan. In the same way, I try to not judge people with less experience than myself solely on their technical ability because many have better jobs and lead richer lives than I do. Obviously, I also hope that people respond to me based on who I am as a person and not only on my technical (non-)ability or grade. Since kendo is a large part of my life – and hence identity – I hope that years of hard keiko can help develop my character and make me into a better person. However, as the example of K-sensei above demonstrates, this isn’t necessarily a given.