In November 2015, a year after he passed away, I wrote about a particular sensei who had inspired me (“T-sensei” I called him). Although eight years have elapsed since he passed away, I know that his teachings are still alive within me. Just recently, for example, I instructed my students to – when doing a drill that required only kote – never place their mens face-down on the dojo floor; I also told them never to come into the dojo with their socks on (this would enrage T-sensei!). Both of these seemingly unimportant things were pet peeves of T-sensei, and I am passing them on to the younger generation… I am not sure why! One current kendo club student in particularly is very attentive when I talk about kendo stuff, and I intend to show him the commemorative picture book I made of T-sensei after he passed away to share with dojo mates and his family. Needless to say, T-sensei’s kendo style and manner is also embedded within me, at least I hope it is.
In early July last year (2021), another sensei (“I-sensei”) who I had been studying under for 16 years passed away. He was about 96 years old and the last time he put on bogu was – incredibly – only seven months earlier, at the end if December 2020.
(During WWII the young I-sensei was an engineer in the Japanese naval forces based in Kure, south of Hiroshima. On the morning of the 6th of August 1945 he saw the A-bomb mushroom cloud…)
When I first met I-sensei, in the summer of 2005, he was 79 or 80 years old, and incredibly sprightly. Right from the start he was super respectful towards me and never once treated me differently due to being non-Japanese (a rare thing). He mainly taught me koryu, but we did manage kendo once a month or so and on special occassions until about 2017 when we lost our dojo (after which I had no chance to do kendo with him). As he was at the age when most kendo people have already hung up their kote when I first met him, I never did get to see what his kendo was like when he was in his prime. Still, he relentlessly attacked me using a wide variety of waza (katate hanmen, orishiki-dou, kaeshi gyaku-dou, etc). He also enjoyed it when I katate-tsuki’d him, pressumably because nobody else would dare tsuki such an elderly person!!!
Unlike the somewhat abrupt passing away of T-sensei, I-sensei had been preparing things for a while. At well over 90 years old, I guess that’s normal. Four months before he passed away (and three months after a large operation) he told everyone in the dojo that it was time that he retired. New roles were officially awarded, a group picture taken, and a goodbye of sorts was said. At the time I don’t think I quite understood what was going on… I assumed he would make it to 100 or more at least. He seemed very lively and positive after all.
When the pandemic started and keiko stopped, I-sensei lost a large part of his life. His wife had passed away not so long before, so going to the dojo and painting is how he spent his time. Although keiko did restart, it wasn’t at the same volume as before. And wearing masks and shields during kendo must have been hard for him. I can’t help thinking that the pandemic somehow robbed him of a few years of life.
I-sensei was not only kyoshi nanadan in kendo and a koryu teacher, he was also an accomplished calligrapher and artist. I’d been to a few of his exhibitions, he’d met and painted my daugher. Like T-sensei mentioned above, I managed to take quite a few pictures of him over the years, and have recently put together a keepsake photo book to share with dojo mates and family. He will be missed.
Early on in the pandemic keiko at my main (adult) kendo club, based at a police station, was stopped. It restarted briefly in November 2021 before being stopped again in February 2022. There is no word as to when it will restart again (if ever…).
With T-sensei gone, I-sensei gone, and my main kendo club in stasis (where I recieved instruction), I have found myself basically sensei-less. There is another dojo I go to at times where there is a really great teacher I respect, but it is far and due to having a young daughter plus the pandemic situation, I can get there extremely infrequently (For over a decade I used to go multiple times a month).
There are also a couple of hachidan that are proactively interested in me and my kendo, which I am thankful for, but both are mostly the hands-off type: they beat you up in keiko, give you a few hints afterwards, then leave you to your own devices.
Putting all this together I have had at times a nagging feeling of being… untethered, drifting aimlessly kendo-wise. I’ve felt like I missed direction, or a role-model or something. I guess this is the natural order of things though: at some point you have to accept that there is nobody that is responsible for your kendo except yourself. And, as you get older your sensei will naturally, at some point and in someway, go out of the picture.
Being the head instructor at my school kendo club and I-sensei’s (koryu) dojo I am well aware that it’s “my turn” to be the role-model. However, if I am being honest, I don’t have a strong desire to be one. I have a long way to go before I reach the level of T or I-sensei. I guess all I can do is keep them in mind while plugging away day-in-and-day-out. The little keepsake photo books will staying on my desk for the foreseable future I guess.