I am a deshi

Even if Japanese is not our main language, in a kendo environment we often use the Japanese term “sensei” to mean teacher. What about the other 1/2 of the equation, the student? I can’t recall any Japanese terms being used in any of the 10+ countries I’ve had the fortune to do kendo in.

Traditionally, when someone joins a dojo there are a couple of terms used to express “student”: monkasei (門下生) and deshi (弟子). There are some other terms (e.g. 門弟 or 門人), but those two seem to be the main ones used. Unless you are part of a koryu dojo, or watch and read anime/manga, you will probably never come across the first term. The second term, however, is still used – though uncommonly I must admit – in the Japanese kendo community today.

As regular readers probably know, I run a high school kendo club here in Osaka. When I first started teaching my sensei turned to me and said:

Now you’ve got your own deshi.

This kind of stopped me on my tracks: “deshi… what should I do?” I thought.

Rather than attempt to explain the meaning of “deshi” myself, let me translate a piece from a 13 year old kendoka from Kyushu that I found in this months Kendo Jidai.

p.s. Please check out this old article after you read the one below.

The following essay was awarded the kantosho prize in the Junior High School section of the “32nd kendo youth research seminar.”

I am a deshi

Written by: Hasuda Tomoka
1st year Junior high school student (approx. 13yrs old)
Miyazaki prefecture, Miyazaki city, Shujakukan dojo

Suddenly, after keiko one day my sensei said “you are my deshi.” I was surprised at the suddenness of words, but I was also happy that he called me “deshi.” However, I somehow felt strange. Its because I didn’t actually understand the word “deshi” or what being one means or involves. I thought hard about the meaning of the word and searched out information about it in books and dictionaries. I discovered that “deshi” is part of a “teacher-student” relationship (師弟の関係). On one side of the coin we have the teacher – one with technical skill based on, and knowledge cultivated through experience – who imparts this through instruction; and on the other side we have the deshi, who learns from and studies under the teacher. In a dojo environment, the sensei are the teachers, and we are are the deshi.

So, what is a deshi’s job? What is a deshi supposed to do? A deshi has many various jobs to learn, including seeing off and meeting the sensei when they come to the dojo (shiai), getting any shopping thats needed (for the dojo and/or sensei), taking care of various things around the sensei (to do with the dojo) etc. In kendo, for example, tidying up/putting away the sensei’s bogu and making sure he is comfortable are both part of the deshi’s job.

I started taking tea to the sensei after keiko when I was a 6th grade primary school student (11/12yrs old). This started because my sensei said “bring me tea,” but now it just natural happens. During that short interval, sensei gives me praise, or brings my bad points to attention.

We also talk a lot about non-kendo things as well. What my future dreams are, whats going on at school, the taikai my sensei goes to, the change in seasons, etc all of these are valuable conversations for me. On the occasion that visitors came to keiko, I brought them tea as well. At that time I was told to sit in the corner and listen to the conversation (between the adults). I couldn’t really understand what was being talked about but my sensei said later “even if you can’t understand whats being said, even if you are not part of the conversation, listening to other peoples stories and conversation is important. There will come a time when you will understand.” When he said this to me I pondered that the chance to listen in on these conversations was something different when compared to my usual daily life, and approached these chats with a new feeling.

Another thing that I pay attention to is when my sensei leaves by car (after keiko). When I see him off, I wait until I can no longer see his car before turning away. I learned this after watching how the Riot Squad Police treated their sensei (its possible she is talking about the elite tokuren kenshi in her prefecture).

By continuing to be a deshi like this I have learned some good things, for example: how to use language properly (i.e. learning to by polite in Japanese) and how to be sensitive to nuances in peoples conversations, so now I am at ease with speaking to people who are my superior (i.e. by rank, age, profession, etc). There are other things as well, for example I am able to think and predict what sensei will say/want next, and am already in motion before anything is actually said.

At one time, my sensei told me that deshi have responsibilities. I didn’t really understand what these could be and I thought about it to myself. I think a deshi’s responsibility/job is to keep whats taught to them by their sensei and act within there limits, and to pass these teachings onto their kohai. I still don’t have the ability to do this, so in the meantime I will try my best at keiko, and aim to become a good sempai in the future.

At first I didn’t really know what it means to be a “deshi,” but thanks to everything that my sensei has taught me, I think I am getting closer to understanding the true meaning. Ever since becoming a deshi my sensei has shouted at me a lot; but since there few people around to scold me, I am thankful that he is there, as I know it for my own benefit.

From now on, through kendo and as a deshi/person, I want to keep learning about life.



Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 4)

This is the fourth part in a five-part series that translates a lecture made by Morishima Tateo. To see the rest of the published series plus a bio on Morishima sensei, please click here.

Pursing the spirit and modern kendo


3. Mai (間合) and ma (間)

MAI is the physical space between yourself and your opponent when you are in kamae. MA is everything involved when you confront an opponent – physical distance, time, KYOJITSU (“truth and falsehood” 虚実. If you are open to attack or have a loss of concentration this is 虚; the reverse is 実) – i.e. the current “state.” When this state is good for you when “you are far from your opponent, yet your opponent is within reach of you.” Scientifically speaking this is of-course impossible. This is a spiritual problem. If your spirit is calm but your opponents is overwhelming, he will seem closer to you; in the reverse situation he will seem further away – this is MA at work.

We can explain how to come to this “advantageous state” through 6 factors:

1. Kamae. Utilisation of the natural posture of chudan no kamae you can respond and adapt to the your opponents actions.

2. Mai. “Issoku itto no mai” is the distance where you can reach out and strike your opponent in a single step. However, people have different bodies, abilities, kendo is done by different genders, etc various things change this distance. As you get older you naturally can’t strike from a far distance, so your Mai becomes shorter. The same “issoku itto no mai” is a lot longer for younger people. That is, the distance changes on the individuals circumstance. Working to strike from the best distance and time is called “MATZUMORI” (間積り).

3. The principles of attack and defense as one (攻防の理合). Important For the purpose of achieving Matzumori are the Sansappo (“three killing methods” 三殺法) and Kyojitsu. Depending on the way you use your shinai and they way you move forward and back, left and right, you can make the best distance and time to attack.

4, 5, and 6. Kiai, Waza, and Movement of the Spirit. These three factors are an important element in creating the desired “advantageous state.” Movement of the spirit refers to MUSHIN. If you are thinking about some sort of ideal or worldly thoughts then you can’t move freely. If your spirit is like a mirror you will be able to respond to your opponents movements and execute techniques freely.

If we combine all of these factors, comparing yourself with your opponent you should feel closer to them than they do to you. In kendo terms this is called *NORU (乗る). There are many different explanations of this “noru.” There are no mistakes in them but the real “noru” is what I explained above. When you are in a more advantageous position than your opponent you can then be said to be “overwhelming” them.

* I would translate this not literally from the dictionary, but as “Overwhelm”

Continued in the last part…



Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 3)

This is the third part in a five-part series that translates a lecture made by Morishima Tateo. To see the rest of the published series plus a bio on Morishima sensei, please click here.

Pursing the spirit and modern kendo


(2). From “technique kendo” and “power kendo” to “spirit kendo”

The steps of kendo pursuit (剣道修行)

So, how do we change this “defensive” kendo into an “attacking” one? I mentioned before about the problem of instructors; this is one point that needs addressing. One more point is changing the content of kendo from “technique” and “power” based to “spirit” based kendo (心の剣道). This is very difficult to do, but if you are prepared to do it, then it can be done.

From now I will explain the 3 steps to pursue kendo correctly. The first step is:

elementary level people* – those from beginners until around 3dan who should focus solely on training drills and kihon.”

If people at this level practise this way, they will make a solid base from which they can build on. Nowadays basics are neglected and people are suddenly doing shiai here and there. Being taught is a hassle for these people and – no matter how they do well at shiai – there will come a time when they find themselves unable to advance without difficulty.

* Note that in Japan this usually (but not always) covers primary school children up until university aged young adults. Watch some university level shiai to get an idea of what your kendo should ideally look like at that end of the elementary point.

Look at the famous words by Mochida Seiji:

Until the age of 50 you must do your upmost to study and make the basics your own. You might think that you have already mastered the basics when you were still a beginner, but this is completely wrong. There are many people who think in this wrong manner. It took 50 years for my body to acquire the basics.

The famous Mochida Seiji said that it took him 50 years to acquire the basics of kendo! I was lucky to have done keiko many times with Mochida sensei at Keishicho and Noma dojo. After keiko I would be sitting in the teachers room drinking tea when someone more senior than me would ask “Was my left foot twisted out?” Being humble in this way allows us to grow. Undoubtedly, the most important part of your kendo life is the time when you are focusing solely on basics.

The next step is the:

Intermediate level – at this stage in your career you can improve rapidly, and it usually comes around 4, 5, 6 dan. Above and beyond drilling in the basics, you should work on utilising techniques and your power to the most, and temper your confidence through wholehearted hard training”

This is the most painful and difficult part of your kendo career. Because it is the most difficult part you must do kendo so much that your body becomes lean and strong. Wherever you go for keiko, whenever you do shiai, you must do it with full strength so that everyone says “wow, that guy is strong!” People who keiko like this during this period and those who are negligent are easy to tell apart after the fact.

The last level is:

Advanced level – people 7dan and above who aim to achieve completion in the physical (technique) and mental (spirit), as well as the human factors of kendo training.”

In this period, the technical, powerful, speed-centric kendo that you have been doing to-date must do an about-turn and change to “spirit kendo” (心の剣道). What I mean by “spirit kendo” is the ability to “show that you have won with your spirit through the techniques you execute.” When we were young there were many sensei like that, now, however, I rarely see anyone with this ability.

Looking at “spirit kendo” from the teachings of Shirai, Mochida, and Saimura sensei

In the Bakamatsu period, there was a renowned kenshi called Shirai Toru. He opened a dojo at the age of 28 and taught around 300 students. In spite of this, he had a worry about his own kendo. In the fencing world at the time, there were many fine kenshi up until the age of 40 around. After 40, however, they weakened and became a mere shadow of their former selves. “I wonder why that happens? I guess that will happen to me too…” And so he left his dojo and 300 students, went back to his home city of Edo, and sought out his (itto-ryu) sempai Terada Goroemon. Terada sensei didn’t use a shinai for sparring, but a bokuto. Terada was a buddhist priest and Shirai studied sazen under him. He also underwent Terada’s severe training methods and, before long, brokedown. At that time he unexpectedly discovered the Zen master Hakuin’s story “Yasenkanna” (Quite conversations on an evening boat). After reading this he tried harder at following Terada’s sazen instruction and introspection methods. “Introspection” is where you stare deep into your heart. After doing as best as he could he became a swordsman that even his teacher (now Terada) could not find fault with.

Mochida Seiji said:

When you become 70, your entire body becomes weak. At this time, I focused on keeping my spirit unmoved. If your spirit is unmoved your opponents spirit will be reflected in it. I worked to make my spirit quiet and unmoving.

I believe Mochida sensei didn’t suddenly begin to work on the task above when he became 70, but long before. He was always a technically superb fencer, and on top of this he worked at polishing his spirit. Its because of this that he became so famous a fencer it was said that he was unrivaled.

If your spirit is unmoved your opponents spirit will be reflected in it…. I remember facing Mochida sensei and thinking idle thoughts – “I wonder if I can win…. maybe I will lose…” – before the match was even decided. How many times was I defeated by Mochida sensei!?!?! I was probably 2 or 3 times the physical strength of him (due to age difference) and still got beaten by “that old guy!” Of course, it was wrong of me to think like that. Mochida sensei’s spirit had become a clear mirror – if you thought about striking him that thought would be reflected in his heart and in that instant he would strike. This is because he pursued kendo with his spirit.

The final sensei I want to talk about is Saimura Goro. His taught that:

If your spirit has been moved then – without even being struck – you should admit defeat.

Techniques must be practised until they become part of you, and you strike instinctually at the instant where an opening appears.

Nowadays, sensei like this have become rare. Even today I bet there are many of us that think “I wish I could become a sensei like X.” Now, many sensei believe what they are doing is correct but, there is a much higher level of kendo to aim for; because they haven’t seen those sensei, nor even heard about them, they can’t understand. Due to this, I feel sad for the younger generation.

Don’t run away from the first strike (shotachi)

One of the important methods we can use to change “defensive” kendo into “attacking” kendo is to concentrate on winning the first strike. This has been a part of the kendo pedagogy for a long time, and we have all learned it. Japanese kendo was born from “shinken shobu.” In a real life fight with swords there is no second strike, only one. In modern kendo we try to do this with shinai. “Shotachi ippon” isn’t so difficult as to require your full force, however challenging difficult things is part of the pursuit of kendo. As you are training hard to discipline yourself into seeking shotachi, and trying various methods (kufu), you will see a change: what you have been doing until now, that is, striking randomly with no rationale, with no opening, doing techniques that don’t result in ippon… this mudauchi (striking for no reason) will become less and less.

About The Principles of Kendo

In concrete terms, the “principles of kendo” is the method of drawing out maximum efficiency based upon the elements of “posture, breathe, vigour, eye contact, spatial distance, chance, body movement, tenouchi, striking the right spots, zanshin and so on.” The method of drawing out this maximum efficiency is SHIN-KI-RYOKU-ICCHI (mind, spirit and power in unison). The highest principle of kendo is this shin-ki-ryoku-icchi. If we breakdown shin-ki-ryoku-icchi into three sections we have “mental/spiritual control” (心法), “manipulation of the sword” (刀法), and “physical movement” (身法). If we break this down further we get the aforementioned elements of “posture, breathe, vigour, etc.” When all of these factors come together at the same time, we have finally achieved Shin-ki-rokyu-icchi.

The difficult thing about achieving shin-ki-rokyu-icchi is that you are facing an opponent. Trying to overcome your opponent is surely the most difficult part of kendo. Depending on the amount of kufu you do (over time) you can achieve shin-ki-ryoku-icchi. Once you have achieved this, the natural progression is to “shotachi ippon” (the first strike) and “winning by striking simultaneously” (see the final part).

1. Posture and breathe

In kendo, disciplining your spirit though hard training is important. That is to say, shin-gi-ittai (心技一体). Technique (技) is important, but what makes technique come alive is spirit (心). How do you train your spirit? Well, its through “breathing.” Kendo breathing is chokoki-tanden-kokyu (長呼気丹田呼吸): using the tanden you exhale at length, and inhale briefly. Doing this reduces the overall number of breathes you take. Where a normal person would breathe 15 times, using this method you would need only 4 or 5. Let me explain the benefit of this type of breathing. Beneath your solar plexus is where the autonomic nerves gather. Breathing from the belly (i.e. tanden) your diaphragm goes up and down and stimulates these nerves, specifically the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve systems. As the parasympathetic nerves ascend, it causes you spirit to remain calm. Thus, calmness is the benefit gained from breathing from the tanden.

2. Ki

The universe was said to created by “ki.” As we breathe, we inhale and exhale this energy into and out of our bodies. I talked about Terada and Shirai sensei before. It was said that from Terada sensei’s bokuto “fire” emanated, and from Shirai’s “rings.” That is to say, depending on how advanced your breathe control is, this energy can be transported from your diaphragm, through your fists, into your shinai, and finally this “ki” can be expressed on the kensaki.

As much as possible your “spirit should be correct and calm, and your ki strong.” There is a saying “pressure with your ki, overwhelm him, break his kamae and spirit, and seize the opportunity you create.” In both these teachings, spirit and ki hold the most important meaning. To cultivate ki the best method is *seiza (sazen). Depending on how you do this you can train your breathing. If your discipline your breathing, your spirit will become calm and your posture correct. If your posture is correct, your spirit will become correct, and you will be able to execute techniques correctly. In this way you can see that there are many interconnected things here, but the root of them all is breathe.

* “seiza” refers to “quiet meditation through sitting” (静座) and should not be confused with the homonym (in English at least) “seiza” (正座) which refers to the method of sitting down we often use in budo. Same pronunciation, different meaning and kanji.

The best way to achieve “spirit kendo” is to practise seiza. You can’t practise zazen without the help of a specialist but seiza anyone can practise. However, if you don’t approach the practise seriously then there will be no benefit gained from it. It can give you a correct posture, correct breathing, and put your spirit in order. If you practise tanden breathing, then you will cultivate tanden power. From seiza-cultivated tanden power comes mental concentration and the ability to confine the ego; from these limitless boundaries you can acquire exquisite skill. Practising seiza will free you from “idle thoughts and delusion” and allow you to “strike naturally from a state of nothingness.”

Continued in part 4…



Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 2)

This is the second part in a five-part series that translates a lecture made by Morishima Tateo. To see the rest of the published series plus a bio on Morishima sensei, please click here.

Pursing the spirit and modern kendo


2. The road to regenerate kendo
(* due to length, this section is split into two articles)

(1). Developing instructors

Sanma no gurai

First let me talk about the pressing issue of instructor development. There is something called “sanma no gurai” (三磨の位). As you all know, this came from the secret teachings of Yagyu shinkage-ryu. This is tightly connected to instructor development, so I’ve picked it up for use here today.

First is 習 (SHU; know by even casual Japanese speakers in the verb narau, to learn/study), which suggests that you must find yourself a good teacher and learn from them. The famous zen philosopher Dogen said:

“If you don’t have a good teacher, you are better off not studying at all”

Continue reading Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 2)

Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 1)

This is the start of a five-part series that translates a lecture made by Morishima Tateo sensei in December 2007. The speech was made to senior kendo sensei and its theme was about the state of modern kendo, and what can be done to change it. A brief bio of Morishima sensei can be found at the bottom of this article.

To see the entire series please click here.

The series will be released in the following order (I hope!). Please note that I will translate part-by-part, so there is the chance that some of the translated terms below will change as I draft, edit, then finally publish. Sectioning the lecture into the below “parts” was done by me for the sake of ease.

Part 1: Introduction; Post war kendo change: overemphasis on shiai / winning at all costs; popularity of surprise methods; the shift from attacking to defensive kendo;
Part 2: The road to regenerate kendo; developing instructors; sanma no gurai; returning to the origin; the establishment of The Concept of Kendo; about The Mindset of Kendo Instruction;
Part 3: From “technique kendo” and “power kendo” to “spirit kendo”; the steps of kendo pursuit; looking at “spirit kendo” from the teachings of Shirai, Mochida, and Saimura sensei; about The principles of kendo; posture and breathe; ki;
Part 4: mai and ma; the essential mechanism for striking;
Part 5: winning by striking simultaneously; thinking about the important points in kendo;

* note that I have rendered 心の剣道 as “spirit kendo” although I am not really satisfied by doing so.

Continue reading Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 1)