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.

Continue reading Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 4)

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.

Continue reading Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 3)

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)