Old geezer

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.

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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9 replies on “Old geezer”

Nice article George and kudos to you for your inclusion of the thoughts on Yamaguchi sensei ( a man that truly approached life and kendo in the right way). As an older (not old yet, but almost 54) kenshi that is really just a beginner ( I am sandan) I have an appreciation of age and kendo. One of the great things about kendo, as you suggest, is the great many older people that still practice. It is great to be able to keiko with these people and learn from them, not only about kendo but also about life. This is one of the many things that makes kendo so special to me personally.

Another great article! I am constantly awed and humbled by the older kendoka I’ve had the opportunity to practice with. It’s true we all lose speed over time, but budo rewards both the patient mind and decisive action, both of which – if given the chance through good practice – develop and “ripen” over time.

Nice work George. It reminds me of my first trip to Japan back in 1987. I was sent to Nippon Budokan Tokyo to participate in the monthly international keiko. I was 4th Kyu at that time. To my surprise I saw an old man walking with a cane and his upper body was kind of deformed. He looked insite the dojo and then disappeared. After 10 minutes he returned to the dojo wearing gi and hakama and his posture was straight up without a cane. It turned out he was a 9.Dan Hanshi! He was sitting on a chair on the red carpet and some younger kenshi put on the bogu while he was seated. All 8. Dan Sensei lined up to keiko with him. I had Keiko with 8. Dan Hanshi Iho Sensei who, I learned after, was a famous Sensei in Japan. This day deeply impressed me and the spirit I felt in this Dojo was amazing and second to none. There were thousands of years of kendo practice at this place that day. And I was one of the youngest back then…

This resonates with me as I approach middle age (I plan to live to 100…) though I have seen much younger people knocked down in the manner that this older sensei was.

Still, we cannot discount the fact that our body and reflexes will decline as we age. For older athletes, physical training outside of kendo is a requirement. It’s not just being able to deploy one’s experience to counter a lagging speed or strength.

We need to be training as athletes and this means weightlifting to slow muscle degradation and maintain bone density. Eating for performance (no sugar, high protein), and constantly challenging our bodies and mind by fighting opponents of all ages. Personally, I do CrossFit to help me stay tough.

As humans, we are fundamentally water and water follows the course assigned to it. With a dedicated mind and hard training, we can be strong and do great kendo to the day that we die.

Cheers guys! Good to see It’s not just me who ponders these things.

Mark – due to the amount of keiko I do, I have little time to do anything else (I’m studying a second university degree as well, which doesnt help!). And even if I did, I think I’d do something lighter on the body…. like maybe yoga or something.

George, I know what you mean about time. I practice only 4 times a week but have little time for much else on top of lifes other responsibilities. I do try to ride bicycle and a small amount of weight work (emphasis on small) but I would like to have more time to practice tai chi to maintain my flexibility and body coordination. I know several high ranked (7 dan or above) kenshi that when asked what they do for exercise besides kendo have told me ‘Nothing. Kendo is enough if you do it enough.’

Kudos George – a wonderful article.
This one resonated and hit home since I am 56 yrs old, been in the arts for 35 yrs and need lots of aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxin sodium to keep going. Scotch helps too. Seriously, as the body ages along with our experience, we become much more a strategist than a bull. I have two tenets – “Chance favors the prepared mind” and “Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill” It works. A prepared mind knows what, when, where, and how to do things instinctively through a very calm demeanor.
Many, many, advanced [in age] yudansha can continue doing the arts through self-aware knowledge.
A very senior kung fu practitioner told me he had slowed down on the kung fu since he was getting old [60+ years old after 45+ years in the arts] and took up escrima sticks, “since it was easier.”
I too had little use for the “older guys” in the dojo when I was young and stupid, but as I progressed and realized these “older guys” were just being nice to me, my attitude changed and I began to listen to the stories and experiences of my elders [physically, chronologically, experience, and philosophically] and brought them into my life.
During a seminar, a very kindly, elderly gentleman was sitting by the dojo floor and had many people around him listening intensely. He was not holding court – his presence was much more inviting. He was easily in his 70’s, gray hair, gray beard, pot belly, looked a lot like a perfect grandfather, until he stepped on the mats. He became an instant monster, tossing and bouncing people around, all the while smiling from ear to ear. He was an 8th dan.
Sorry for the rambling, but as I age, I react differently to situations and circumstances based upon my years in the arts.

Thanks for reading

Inoue sensei, Kyoto Butokuden. Novemebr 5th 2012 (Clip couertesy of Dimitry Monday, Edinburgh University kendo Club)

I remember Inoue sensei from Kitamoto 1995 and was fortunate enough to do gikeiko with him. My first thought afterwards was- that is not an old man with a walking stick that I would wish to tackle in the street! (I was young and still thought kendo was about fighting then.)
I also remember two kendoka over six foot six that year and Inoue sensei is a very short man; sensei simply jumped in the air to cut men! Hilarious but they couldn’t get near him.

Respect your elders.

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