About two weeks ago I had the rare chance to have a long private chat during lunch with my sensei after keiko (he’s in his mid-60s hanshi). We talked about lots of different things including our private lives, but its something kendo related (of course) that he said that inspired this current post.
Since around about April I’ve found my enthusiasm for kendo wavering a bit, This happens to everyone now and then of-course, but this time its lasted 5 months, which is pretty long even by my standards. Looking for some words of wisdom to help snap me out of my mood, I asked my sensei has he ever experienced something like this. He of course has practised kendo his entire life. He joined the police straight out of high school for the sole purpose of pursuing a kendo career. He’s taken part in almost any competition you care to name, placing in many of them (as a tokuren member or after that as a police kendo teacher). Lately he’s been busy travelling all over the place teaching seminars and what have you.
I assumed he would answer my question in the affirmative, which he did, but not in the manner I had guessed. As a young man in the tokuren squad he basically lived to compete. Shiai success was everything. Failure to perform in shiai meant being removed from the shiai lineup and, if things didn’t improve, threat of removal from the team entirely. This of course would mean having to work as a normal policeman (or quitting). This was (and still is) a very very competitive environment (remember you also have to vie with your teammates on a daily basis for selection and other people are waiting in the wings to join). It was during this time – when shiai success was not forthcoming – that his enthusiasm wavered and he sometimes lost his confidence. However, he managed to overcome these periods of doubt and went on to have a successful shiai career. This translated itself into a kendo teaching position when he was in this late 30s and set him up with not only a job for life, but is also directly related to his teaching duties nowadays (before and after retirement).
The doubts that my teacher had were then dispelled by constant shiai success in his youth, and since then he’s had none!!! But he then went out of the way to point out that his situation is only typical of those few people that actually make tokuren squads and survive the duration. School (and to a certain extent university) teachers – the next level ‘down’ from police kendo pros – have a much different experience.
Top level competitive kenshi almost always follow the exact same path until they leave university – start as a primary school kid and continue kendo through their junior and high school years, often going to renowned dojo or schools with a solid kendo tradition. Some will have have shiai success from the start (Uchimura) and others will be late bloomers (Teramoto); most will go onto to university before entering a kendo related career, and a few will go straight into the police after high school (Yamamoto Mariko). People are of course scouted. Those that graduate university and wish to pursue a kendo related career have basically 3 choices: enter the police, become a teacher, or join a company with a kendo team (non graduates can’t become teachers). Obviously which path a person chooses is based not only on their kendo skill, but also their personality and academic ability. That some people choose not to join the police is understandable – the harshly competitive environment and high failure rate must put most people off. Becoming a teacher is also something that isn’t for the light hearted, but in a much different way. Joining a company team is probably the easiest option of the 3, with its more casual kendo pace and ‘normal’ life style. Of course, the majority of people quit kendo after university (women more so), or continue only very casually.
When becoming a teacher your kendo career suddenly tips upside-down: from being on the receiving end of instruction, you are now on the giving end. Shiai becomes almost entirely something for your students, not for yourself, and your kendo pride and success is intertwined with that of your students. Your daily kendo practise is mainly aimed at your students improvement, not your own (although many younger teachers will continue to do kendo with their students; older teachers basically only shout at the kids and then do a bit of jigeiko!). The tokuren policeman/woman on the other hand is fighting for their survival.
Its this that explains why police kendo dominates in Japan: those that have success in the environment become not only highly skilled, but supremely confident. They have to be in order to survive (and to translate their tokuren years into a future career). Its this process that my sensei went through and explains his lack of wavering over the past 30 years (and I assume others in a similar situation). I envy this self belief!!
I actually sat down and wrote this post soon after the discussion with my teacher. As I post it live (about 2 weeks later) I find myself sitting here with a beer in hand. Of my three keiko sessions planned for today I skipped both the morning and evening practise…. in fact, my evening practise is going on right now as I post this live! I know that my teacher did keiko this morning, and I highly suspect he’s currently doing keiko right now…… no good George!!