Sensei, teachers and guys you learn from – Nov 11, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

The Kendo Federation and other such multi-art organizations with standardized curricula can create some confusion in students about who is in charge, who’s their teacher and who you learn from.

At a koryu seminar recently I found myself going into a bit of a rant about it all. I was standing in front of a room full of not-students, that is, a bunch of people who were not my direct students. We were all there to practice with my teacher, the fellow who taught the teachers of 99% of those who weren’t his direct students.

So far so good, but in the last several years I have heard such things as “our Japanese sensei” and “Joe sensei says” so I felt compelled to try and explain things. I can get a bit hard-assed about this stuff.

Simply put, in the koryu you have one sensei and that’s it. It doesn’t matter who his sensei is, or who else may be around who knows stuff. You can learn from lots of people but you’ve got one person who is in charge of what, when and how much you know.

Never a problem when you’re in the boonies with a single teacher who isn’t part of a larger organization. (Almost the definition of koryu organizational structure.) It never crosses anyone’s mind to think about “our French sensei”. Did that sound strange? That’s the first problem isn’t it? A Japanese teacher trumps any amount of experience from a local teacher according to a lot of budo students (who perhaps have little experience with Japanese people). It’s a sort of reverse racism where folks assume an inborn quality… well OK it’s straight out racism isn’t it? I know one very high ranked Japanese-born Western teacher who has decided that his mission is to get the Japanese themselves to understand the depth of knowledge that exists in his art outside of Japan. He’s got an uphill battle against both the Japanese and western students. A prophet is never respected in his home town, and it’s pretty easy for western students to assume that any Japanese must know more than their local teacher. Your dad never knows as much as the neighbour down the street.

One result of being in a larger organization is a mixing of authority. In the Kendo Federation there is a standard set of practice for kendo, and standard sets of kata for iai and jo. Iaido still mixes in some koryu to the grading system but jo has removed the koryu completely. Kendo is kendo, like judo is judo and aikido is aikido. These arts are all taught as parts of a larger whole, aikido somewhat less so than the two competitive arts which have to teach to a set of competition rules but all three have a larger view than just sensei and his students. In these cases it’s easy to see that you have many sensei… but even here you really don’t. You have one sensei (call him coach if you want) and perhaps many teachers who help train you. You fight for or practice in one club with one guy in charge and everyone else is a trainer. Having multiple trainers sort of muddies the idea of one sensei per student. In competition it’s all sort of moot, we all know who won the fight so we all know what works and what doesn’t, at least in the ring. In Aikido there is no real proving ground so we get seminars where half the students are saying “well in our club we do it like this”… ouch, the competition becomes who knows the most ways to ignore what the seminar leader just showed. You don’t see much competition in the koryu, which is sort of good and bad. Good because it means there is still room for variation in the teaching, not so good in that the art never gets stressed, never gets tested since the era of dueling in the back streets of Edo is over. You have one teacher of koryu who, if he likes you, might pass on the secret methods of winning a fight, but how does anyone know it works? At least that trick your kendo sensei showed you can be checked your next match, and maybe one of your other trainers also showed you a trick. As I said, it can get muddy.

Jodo in the Kendo Federation is all Shindo Muso Ryu all the time. The seitei jo is taken directly from the koryu and the word from high up is that you can learn all the lessons within seitei so there is no need to include the koryu in the examinations. I suspect it’s a bit more practical than that and has more to do with the difficulty of getting people to attempt 8dan with a koryu component. Regardless, there really isn’t any need to include koryu for the reason I was first given for it’s inclusion in the tests… to keep the koryu alive. In iai there are several koryu at the root of the standardized set and that means that students may not be inspired to go further. Putting in a requirement for a koryu kata in a test will require them to at least meet a koryu sensei to learn a couple of kata. Jodo is all one koryu and by learning the standard set you’ve also learned quite a large chunk of the first few levels of the koryu. In that case why not go on?

There is competition in iai and jo, but it’s not open like kendo, it’s closed like gymnastics with two people approaching an ideal form that is desired by the judges. Great for standardization and a really good argument for studying with multiple trainers, preferably each one of the judges so that you can learn what makes each of them crazy (don’t do that) and happy (do that). Large organizations with multiple instructors teaching the same thing in a standardized way equals confusion in the student mind as to what a sensei is.

Rank also confuses the idea of a sensei. These organizations hand out ranks which are applicable to the organization and to what is tested (the standardized set of kata). Students see these ranks and see that higher ranks teach lower ranks. This leads to the idea that a higher rank trumps sensei status. In other words, your 5dan sensei teaching you koryu gets outranked by a visiting 7dan who teaches you some koryu. Not strictly relevent. Even if the 7dan is your teacher’s teacher, your teacher is your sensei.

First sensei is your sensei. Never forget that. The first will always be the most important, that’s your “genetic inheritance” the basis of your personal art. What you learn first can be modified and added to but it’s your base and you ought to respect the guy who gave it to you for that reason alone.

Can you ever change sensei? Sure you can. If you move to a new town as a beginner you need supervision and so you can switch to another sensei. If you’re a big boy and most of your training is training and not learning, maybe you stay with your original sensei and visit when you can for touch-ups.

Has your sensei died? You can change, when your sensei dies the line breaks and you can either stay on your own or connect with another sensei. There is a peculiar sort of idea in the west that if your sensei is Japanese from Japan and he dies, you have to go with his successor in Japan, even if that guy is less experienced than you are. This is rather silly from a teaching point of view, what can a junior teach you? I mean aside from the observation that you can learn from anyone, it doesn’t make much sense to have a sensei who is less experienced than you are. What does make sense is if you want to stay with the same organization and a person who is less experienced than you is in the top position in that organization. What you’re talking about there is administrative jobs rather than teaching positions and in many places rank does not equate with organizational position. In fact I suspect it rarely does unless you’re in a place where sensei has to do it all because of few students to take over the paperwork. Chief administrator does not imply chief instructor, and a good administrator will make it clear to higher ranked instructors that he respects them as such. Nothing splits an organization faster than some “jumped up junior” telling his betters what they ought to teach.

Even in the case of a koryu lineage where your Japanese sensei has a student who takes over the dojo and that student is more experienced than you are, it is not automatic that a new sensei-student relationship is created. Sempai-kohei to sensei-deshi may not be an easy transition for either party and either side can break it at that moment.

Now do I go on and on like this to my own students? No of course not, and I don’t actually care who they learn from or who they call their sensei. If they want to call me sensei, and my sensei their sensei that’s fine with me. They’re still my student and I’m going to worry about them.

On the other hand, if they wander off and start calling some stranger I’ve never seen their sensei I’m also good with that but I’m going to happily turn their extra-technical instruction over to that stranger. One less headache for me and I hope the other guy accepts them as a “student” rather than as a student so that he actually does put himself on the line for them when they need it.

See, this isn’t all just an academic exercise. In a very real way I will put myself on the line for my sensei, I’ll support him in his fights and follow his lead. I’ll also back up my students and put myself on the line for them. This is the koryu we’re talking here, rather than the standardized organizational kata. In that case the best thing to do for your students is to send them out often to learn from other judges, to spread them out so they are as standardized as the kata and they have the best chance of passing their next grade. In fact, at higher ranks in any organization the more you get your face in front of the senior ranks, the better your chances.

But never misunderstand the situation. The senior ranks in an organization like the kendo federation will have a generalized, standardized responsibility to the students and the higher ranks and the organization itself. Something like loyalty to the company you work for. That’s far different from the family-like situation I’m talking about in the koryu.

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