Sensei 先生

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.

Old Geezer, October 2012

A man of little words, the sensei in question above quietly stopped coming to the dojo sometime in 2014. It happened without any notice – he simply didn’t show up. After a week or so my sempai contacted his house to inquire after him only to find out he was diagnosed with cancer and had already been operated on. Not wanting to intrude, we left him to his privacy. Hopefully he’d come to the dojo when he was feeling better.

Earlier this year he had seemingly recovered enough to pop in to the dojo and watch a godogeiko. I couldn’t attend that particular keiko due to a work kendo event, and only found out later that he had come to watch. “I should call him” I thought, but I never did. Last Saturday morning I heard that he had passed away five days earlier on the 3rd of November.

When I first landed in Osaka in 2005 I had been through a torturous two years in Hiroshima. My work experience there was a truly miserable one which was only magnified by the difficulties I faced kendo-wise. I practised at a central police station with police teachers and people from the nearby naval base. I think in those two years nobody allowed me to strike their men, they just beat me up constantly. Unbelievably, I remember standing in the dojo sniffling in my men with sheer frustration (at least twice). I made no kendo friends, mainly because I couldn’t speak Japanese, but also because there was nobody of my age in the dojo. Many times I thought about quitting and going home but, somehow (I still don’t know how I managed it), I scrambled through and escaped to civilisation: Osaka! There my kendo life was about to start proper, partly due to the efforts of one man.

Before arriving in Osaka I had already managed to get an introduction to Yoseikai, a dojo in the city centre. The shihan of Yoseikai was hanshi hachidan and Busen graduate Furuya Fukunosuke sensei. Below him was club president and a long time member of the dojo and student of Ikeda Yuju sensei: T-sensei.

(I haven’t mentioned his name here because he very much kept to himself. If you can read Japanese or have visited the dojo in the last few years I’m sure you can work out who I am talking about.)

I don’t know what it was about T-sensei and me, but somehow he started looking after my kendo relatively soon after I arrived. I think it may have been because I did something that people in Japan don’t bother with nowadays: I asked him for permission to take my next grading. Shaking his head and waving his hand, his answer was pretty curt:

“You can if you want, but you’ll fail.”

And fail I did.

For the next nine years I’d put my men on quickly and line up to do kirikaeshi with him at the start of practise. At the end of keiko, even if I’d already done a final kirikaeshi with someone else, I’d go up to him again and do one more kirikaeshi. During jigeiko it was no holds barred. I think I was the only person who even attempted to tsuki him, which he seemed to enjoy! On the very rare occasion that we managed to socialise together I’d pour his beers. After a few his taciturn nature disappeared and he’d say what he thought about people’s kendo or their attitude in the dojo… being a strict man, his opinion was often strongly put, much to the chagrin of those listening! Luckily I always got a pat on the back and a beer refill. Randomly, he once gave me some razors because he thought I needed a shave, and on another occasion some cabbage that he’d grown in his garden because he knew I was vegetarian. Due partly to T-sensei’s tutelage, I pretty much forgot my first horrible two years in Hiroshima.

Despite all this, sadly, I’m not sure that I can say that I actually knew him as a person. Kendo-wise there was some sort of unstated and mutual understanding between us… when and why it started I’m not sure, but whatever it was that initiated it, and why it continued is a mystery to me still. This seemingly vague relationship has, however, affected my outlook in kendo in many areas, for example: I can’t stand overly verbose instruction; I respect hard workers; and I try not to shy away from telling people things (in the dojo) that they don’t like to hear.

T-sensei never became hachidan. He never, at least to my knowledge, won any shiai, major or minor. You won’t see any documentaries about his kendo life on YouTube or read any books filled with his pithy kendo sayings. He was just a normal kendo person like the rest of us… except, for me at least, he wasn’t.



The passing away of the person who I considered my main teacher at relatively young age of 75 has caused me to stop and think. The first and most obvious thing is, of course, that I should be especially thankful for (and respectful to) the older kendoka that I practise with. The most senior (grade-wise) teacher I study under is about 63. Another teacher that looks after me turned 74 recently. The oldest, however, will be 90 in December (as a very young soldier at the end of WW2 based in Hiroshima prefecture he saw the mushroom plume of Little Boy). Also, as you can imagine living at the opposite end of the earth from my own family, I started thinking about my own parents as well.

The second thing is something I believe to be absolutely fundamental (but not limited) to kendo, is that I have an obligation to pass on what was taught to me. Exactly how I do this I’m not yet sure, but whatever shape it takes you can bet T-sensei’s teachings are to be found, somewhere, therein.

The only picture I have with me doing kendo with T-sensei
The only picture I have with me doing kendo with T-sensei

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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.

16 thoughts on “Sensei 先生

  1. There are many ways to clim a Mountain, some are quicker but there is no gain in that, others are harder, but usually, make you learn the most, in those, the people who you find, make the diference. Such sensei are one in a million.

  2. Great post. It’s amazing how these very deep connections happen in Kendo without much actual dialogue about it or anything demonstrative. A bystander might not see any connection. Also, experiencing the mortality of one’s sensei is a real shock: the realisation that all that skill and experience will one day just disappear, like it has with C-sensei. I’m still trying to get my head around it. b

  3. Mate, what a great post. You did a fine job of honoring the man. I very much liked hearing that you too, don’t enjoy “overly verbose teaching”. Perhaps because I started in Japan as well, and like yourself, didn’t have a good command of the language at that time, my teachers and I relied on few words. I just “did” Kendo as they showed me.

    To this day, I still feel it was the best way. For me at least.

    Ironically, I just wrote to my first Kendo teacher a while back. I knew he was getting on in years and I had lost touch with him as he wasn’t an email (or god forbid, a social media) kind of person. By luck, I got hold of his post address and I knew that I wanted to say a few things to him. Things of gratitude and a photo of myself and my son (who is also a kenshi). I just wanted to thank him and let him know that he made a big impact on me and that I’m still carrying on.

    So, reading this latest entry of yours was interesting in its timing. I was genuinely moved by it.

  4. Not yet! I just wrote him a short while ago. Honestly, part of me thinks he will. The challenge for me will be to brush up on my kanji and Okayama-ben comprehension if he does!!!

  5. George McCall Sensei.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experience of being in Japan, I have just recently found out about you either through luck or by watching Andy Fisher Sensei’s videos for which I’ve also just come across, and its great to get an overview from a British perspective.
    Originally from London, England but now living in Toronto, Canada for over 30 plus years I too practice Kendo, but when the time permits and I go back home I always make sure I take my bogu with me to train and to be given Instruction from the Sensei’s to improve my Kendo.
    I have just purchased the Kendo Coaching Tips And Drills and cant wait to read up on it and to pass the information onto the students that I teach at the Burlington Kendo Dojo.

    Thank you so much for all the information that I come across and hopefully look forward to training with you at your Dojo, which has given me a new goal to reach for.

    Respectfully Yours.
    Michael Robertson.

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