kendo updates

Ri – time to go

When I started putting this article together I was a bit unsure how it would end as I was in the throes of deciding whether I would leave a dojo I’ve been a member of for two decades. In the end I did decide to leave and I feel better for doing so.

Now and then I get messages from kendo friends asking for advice on their kendo-lives abroad. Sometimes it can just be “my sempai is a bit overbearing, how should I handle the situation?” other times I get things like “my long-time sensei has stopped wearing bogu nowadays and I am not happy with the next generation of teachers, should I move dojo?” More often than not I get simpler questions than these, but I picked up these two so I can illustrate a particular type of difficult dilemma that people can sometimes find themselves in (yours truly included). 

My answer to the first question is to discuss the situation with dojo mates and the instructor, and talk it out with the particular person. The second question is far tricker as moving dojo is not something that is often easily done in places with low kendo populations. In fact, there may be no other dojo to move to… and starting your own (potential rival) group may cause other problems. 

If someone is based in Japan, however, moving dojo can be – although not the “done” thing to do – an easier process to go though because there is often more dojo to choose from (unless you are in the middle of nowhere).  

Anyway, whether you are in Japan or outside it, moving/leaving dojo can be a difficult decision to make, fraught with potential pitfalls. The longer you have been a member of the dojo (especially if you have a role in it) the more difficult it becomes. 

So, yeah. I’ve been a member of the dojo in question for twenty years. I was appointed to a teaching position pretty early on, and turned down a director position once about ten years ago, before accepting it finally about four or so years ago. In the meantime my official position evolved from “instructor” to “senior instructor” (just a made-up title for a senior member under director).  This was fine, but by about 15 years in I already had the inkling that I had outgrown the dojo.  

( “Outgrown” can mean many things: in this case it refers not only the technical sense, but the groups use as a place of shugyo. ) 

My sensei passed away in 2021 and it is really at that point where I should’ve left. As I said above, I was ready to leave before but I decided to stay because he always showed me kindness and I respected him, a decision I don’t regret. Anyway, so after he was no longer around the group morphed into something else. A senior member who I respected left early on in this process, and I should’ve probably exited at the same time. For better or worse I tried to stick with it, but in the end I knew it was no longer the place for me. 

(A detailed explanation of why I felt I’d had enough are reserved for the pub/izakaya!)

This is not the first time I have left a dojo. In 2014 another sensei who I respected passed away, and in 2016, after 11 years in the dojo, I felt as if I had no choice and departed. That time was different because I wanted to stay but felt that I was being kind of picked-on by the new teacher (hachidan = infallible). I already had a role in the dojo and would’ve almost certainly taken up a more senior position soon had this not happened. I remain close friends with my peers in the dojo (all of whom run the group now) and they often ask me to come. About once a year I pack my bogu and shinai and visit the dojo for some degeiko, but never go when the head instructor is there – which is unfortunate because I actually like his kendo…

by kendo/iaido hanshi, One Ichiro sensei
by kendo/iaido hanshi, One Ichiro sensei

The title of this article – “Ri” – you of course recognise: it is the last part of shu-ha-RI. Just to refresh your memory, this is from an older article of mine:

The ri (“separation”) stage is one that few ascend to. It is the point where the student has finally soaked up all that their master can teach and, combining it with their own discoveries in the ha stage (both the good and the bad), they create something uniquely theirs. They now become independent of their teacher.

The term Shu-ha-ri (“protect – break – separate”) comes originally, as you would expect, from military tactics. During the 1700s it began to be used in Sado circles, eventually being picked up and popularised for use in budo by Chiba Shusaku sometime in the 1800s. 

[ btw other terms were also imported from cultural arts into budo in the late Edo period, e.g. Shin-gyo-so (Shodo) and Jo-ha-kyu (Noh). ]

In very general terms, this shu-ha-ri cycle exists for anything that is taught and learned. The process of learning/mastery seems to be far longer in budo circles than in many other forms of study, at least nowadays. Is budo mysteriously somehow more difficult to acquire, or is there something else to it? If you look back a few decades or so you will see that the very long gestation time we see nowadays didn’t seem to be the norm. An easy example is that kendo grades only went to godan (people involved with increasing the grades post-war later wrote that in hindsight they shouldn’t have bothered). Anyway, I seem to have gone off-topic.

I guess my point is that after many years of practice at a particular place, it is natural to feel a re-adjustment of your position. You get older, your life changes, people come in and go out. Maybe the older members, including your sensei, pass away or are now no longer able to keiko, and you find yourself in a position of responsibility. As you have aged so to have your priorities changed, and maybe even your passion. Your role in the dojo as well as the dojos role in your life have transformed. Things happen.

I kind of fought my initial feeling to leave the dojo, but it built up over time to such an extent that it was probably obvious to everybody that it was no longer the place for me… it is time I made my own place.

So yeah, the head of the dojo I just left understood why I wanted to leave and is totally supportive of me going my own way (i.e. it’s not a move). “In the future our groups should get together now and then” is how we left it. 

btw case you didn’t realise, the first dojo mentioned today is a koryu one, and the second a kendo one. Same thing though.  

Yano sensei and I will be in Edinburgh again THIS summer! Full information here.

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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7 replies on “Ri – time to go”

Hi there McCall Sensei, thanks for posting an update. Although reading this may leave one heavy-hearted, I’m joyed to hear that you are moving forward in your shugyō. Do you know where you’re heading now? All the best!

Hey Matthew,
Just George please. I’m totally fine. It wasn’t a sudden decision, and I feel good about it! I am not sure what’s next (or when), but I do know it will be on my own terms!

I recently-ish left a dojo I was part of for a long time. It was a hard decision after being there so long despite there being several reasons for me to need to leave. But I feel so much better for doing so.

So I know a little of how you feel. I hope this new start can bring you a fresh new perspective on your shugyo.

For me, I thought it was more that I could not continue under the Shu stage never considering that I would have reached Ha let alone Ri.

But this illustrates how many layers and applications even this concept has. So many thanks for that enlightenment.

Something related, but not the same. We closed our small dojo in Santa Barbara, California last year after 50 years. Our practice location was closed for 3 years due to COVID, and members moved away, aged out, and we no longer had enough participants to continue. My sensei, Hattanda Mikio, had atttended Busen before WWII, and I was his primary long term student. Also, I have retired from work, wish to travel, and at 74, felt there were competing priorities in my life. I now consider myself semiretired from kendo. I now practice with the University of California Santa Barbara kendo club, where I no longer have the primary responsibility of maintaining the dojo, attending monthly federation meetings, etc. We are not Japan, so our choices are much more restricted. If I lived in Los Angeles, there is much more available choices as to where to practice.

@Debz: thanks for your comment. I guess I learned from this experience that at some point you just have to face the fact the time has come.

@Howard: still putting your men on at 74 is amazing as it is. Semi-retired sounds healthy !!

George, thank you for sharing two pieces of your experience. Reminds me the time around seven years ago when I had to make an extremely difficult decision whether to move to another club or to go out to nowhere. I had chosen nowhere and now, some years later, I’ve got a dojo of my own.

I might tell you more at izakaya somewhere this autumn.


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