Instructors who are teaching far from their sensei, or who have lost their sensei tend to have some issues with legitimacy. Are they ready to teach on their own? Are they good enough? Should they be seeking out other sensei if they can find them?
On that last, of course they should, but it’s not always obvious that a different sensei will know as much or more than your lost sensei, or more than you come to that. Is that egotistical? Probably, but you really do need to think carefully about putting yourself under another sensei. If you aren’t sure that he knows more than you do, or that he can make you a better swordsman or a better teacher, why would you align yourself with him?
Several reasons, the most common would be political connections I suspect, that teacher can get you through your next grading or get you appointed to a position in your organization. Or perhaps he is your entry to his organization in the first place. Not all sensei-student relationships are based on the teaching of technique. Let’s table that discussion though, in favour of the simply technical, so back to teaching.
There you are, out in the wilderness after five or six years of training under your sensei. You’ve started a club and now you’re not sure you’re doing the right thing. After all, your sensei isn’t around to support you on a daily basis, you’re in Canada for goodness’ sake, and your budo is Japanese, you’re half a world away from “the real stuff” aren’t you? Talk about wilderness!
In Japan there are no five-year teachers, there’s only 35 year teachers so what will the Japanese say about you? Well in most cases they’ll say you ought not be teaching, that you should hop on the train and go study with your sensei each weekend. (The concept of a three day train ride to visit your sensei might not cross the minds of folks from a small country but we can appreciate the sentiment if not comply with the suggestion.) Come to that, they may cut out the polite stuff and just tell you to stop wasting your time and come to Japan to learn.
Can we talk about koryu? Maybe you’re involved there as well as in a more modern system like the kendo federation. If so you know what a menkyo kaiden is, and you don’t have one. Whups, now you’re even more insecure than you were before.
Allow me to quote from: “Shokoku Kaireki Nichiroku” (Diary of Wandering Several Provinces) 1853-1855 by Muta Bunnosuke, Translation and comments by Sandro Furzi.
Typically the small number of warriors who did undertake their musha
shugyō did so after receiving menkyo kaiden (license / everyone), the final license issued by a school upon full initiation and mastery in the technical and spiritual teachings of the ryūha (a specific school). (p.3)
So there you are, menkyo kaiden is full initiation and mastery in the techniques and spiritual teachings and here’s you with only 5-6 years training.
But a short time later we read:
Bunnosuke studied of Tetsujin Ryū under his father until he was adopted by a Saga han retainer named Muta, then continued his training under another Tetsujin Ryū instructor, Uchida Shōemon. In the 5th year of Kaei era (1852) when twenty-three years old he received the menkyo kaiden of Tetsujin Ryū from both his real father and his teacher Uchida.
To a modern reader, especially to traditional martial arts practitioners, while it may seem strange that someone could be awarded the menkyo kaiden at such young age, this was very common among the schools of Edo period. Typically five to ten years study was enough for someone to get that final license and permission to open his own branch dōjō of the school. (p.4)
Either the edo period samurai were massively smarter than us, their teachers massively better, or there has been some “rank deflation” happening in the last hundred years or so. I mean, full transmission in five to ten years? Do we know so much more now, that it takes 20 years to learn it all today? Perhaps our teachers are less talented, or we’re just stupid but I’d bet on the time limits between grades being cranked up over the years. Don’t forget I’ve sat on grading panels for 20 years and watched the requirements for grades slowly ratchet upward by both natural processes and recently, by fiat from on high.
I suggest that perhaps the study of the martial arts has become a lot less commonplace than it was in the Edo period. After all we figure most professions we’re familiar with (lawyers, doctors, dentists, car mechanics) can be learned in 5-10 years these days, it’s just the ones that are mysterious that we figure must take a long time. Back in the Edo period there were lots of samurai doing their sword training and learning the 65 or 165 kata of the style along with the secrets being whispered in the ear or written down in books. At that time it wouldn’t be thought necessary to spend your entire working life to graduate. You’d be taught all the kata, told all the secrets and booted out the door to get on with it. If you applied yourself you got better, if you were lazy you didn’t.
Could you imagine if we demanded 20 years of study to be an accountant? We require a minimum of 35 years to get to 8dan in the kendo federation. Is that a requirement for learning or a method of keeping the top level at manageable numbers?
So what’s all this looking back toward our sensei we do today? One thing is that we don’t hand out menkyo kaiden which you can hang on your dojo wall to remind you that you’ve got permission to have a dojo wall. In the kendo federation we say you can teach independently at 5dan which is about 10 or 11 years to learn 12 kata. Errm OK maybe that’s why we say you can go teach a lot earlier than 10 years as long as you’ve got someone with a 5dan to sign off on your students as they go and grade. How long does it take to learn 12 kata anyway? Seriously.
Have you been learning for 3 or 4 years and have maybe 3dan? Have you got someone willing to sign off on your students’ applications to grade? Get on with it.
Are you doing a koryu? Do you have permission from your sensei to teach? If so why are we talking.