(Note this is a guest post from Ben Sheppard)
My area as some of you know is teaching kendo to young people. In high school I teach kendo as an elective subject to 12 and 13 year olds. One tool I have found very useful for firing their imaginations is telling them stories from Japanese history, stories that most of us have read or heard at some point I’m sure.
The other day I was telling the story about the student who went to learn from a teacher in the mountains but instead of waza, he was made to cook and clean for sensei. Most of my students even today have seen the movie “The Karate Kid” so this was something they recognised. The next part of the story tells how the teacher starts hitting the student out of the blue, to the extent that the student is on edge at all times, never sure when the next blow is coming. The resolution of the story is, of course, the moment when the student spontaneously reacts and protects himself from the unseen blow, the teacher says, “Now we may begin”. I realised as I finished that some students were looking at me puzzled as if to say, “so what is the moral of that story?” Indeed what is it? Is it that there is something inherently abusive in traditional sword pedagogy?
Later though it struck me (pun intended) that there are some parents that raise their children like this even today. Perhaps with less deliberate intent than the sensei in the story, but for some reason the aim seems to be to toughen up, or to unsettle. Except with these kids all they are left with is the feeling of never being safe, always on edge. This means when they get to school they are the first to get in fights, they see danger all around them, they react in extremis to the slightest stress, and generally are the unhappiest of all. Of course they can’t concentrate and usually resent those who can, so they actively seek to disrupt. They also bond quickly and instinctively with other kids whose histories match their own. Those who don’t receive help from a trusted adult in how to deal with this internalised sense of constant danger usually go on to self-medicate in harmful ways.
All of us who do kendo and other sword arts are stuck in the paradox of practicing a traditional art within a contemporary setting. Further, we are engaged in transmitting militaristic mindsets to people who will (by and large) never require them. Ironically, what I know of koryu pedagogy is much less authoritarian than kendo. It is the high school and university budo clubs with the worst teaching practices in this area (granted this ‘teaching’ often comes from fellow club members and not instructors). Hazing and bastardisation are still practiced in many of these clubs: Kokushikan University’s reputation as a kendo powerhouse was in no way dimished by the tragedy that occured there some years ago. One might even argue that it was enhanced. This is what perpetuates the kind of behaviour that in any other context would be considered at best, anti-social, and at worst, criminal. On the one hand our 21st Century sensibilities tut-tut these practices, but on the other we secretly admire what appears to be extreme rigour and fortitude.
Which reaction is appropriate? Where is the line drawn between hard training and abuse? How much responsibility does the sensei bear for the well-being of the student? What are the protective factors that allow hard training without lasting psychological or physical damage? How far can a sensei push their student (or a sempai push their kohai) before the relationship (or the individual) is broken? Should the instructor be at all concerned with that? Which training tools, if any, are anti-social in their effect? How do we measure the effect of our training methods, particularly on younger kendoka?
These questions are important ones I think, as more of us non-Japanese kenshi become instructors. They are particularly important outside Japan, but I think that within Japanese society as well the cultural climate that supported the old styles of teaching is rapidly changing. It is imperative for us to understand what our teaching methods are, and to examine whether they are best for both the art and for our students. b