On my occasional visits to one or other of the kendo message boards, I often see requests for advice or clarification, to which someone invariably posts the response – “ask your sensei”. This seems to me to be the most logical and accessible way to have questions answered, but obviously many people find it a more daunting option than referring to wiki style resources or asking their peers online. Surely not all kendo instructors are ”grumpy old men”, (no personal comments please), who fill students with fear.
Reflecting on this situation it is worth thinking about the roots of kendo pedagogy. As an essentially Zen martial art, traditionally the onus has been on the student to find his or her own path to enlightenment. Stories of potential disciples sitting for days outside the dojo door begging for admittance are common as are accounts of the uchi-deshi (in-house student) spending months or years just occupied with cleaning and cooking, before being allowed to pick up a weapon. Even post war, there are numerous accounts of beginners spending up to a year on their own practicing suburi before being allowed to join the class.
Certainly during my experience in Japan in the 70s, many high graded teachers were reluctant to hand out advice. Whilst their intentions were obviously benign, their approach to teaching was to act as motodachi for kakarigeiko; allowing correct technique to connect and punishing poor attacks by breaking kakarite’s posture. Some were more approachable than others and were prepared to pass on a few words of encouragement when I waited to thank them personally after the final rei. Others were polite but less outgoing.
The world and kendo with it, has however changed. Kendo is no longer one of two choices for compulsory physical education in Japanese schools, although reintroduction is being discussed. Globally it competes not only with other martial arts, but with a whole range of sports and pastimes. In parallel we have seen a new breed of super-hanshi, people like Chiba sensei and Sumi sensei who are not only superb kendoka, but also great teachers who are happy to explain and coach as well as acting as training partners. Those of us lucky enough to spend time with them are likely to receive a quick, accurate analysis of our kendo strengths and weaknesses and tips on ways to improve.
It is however important that this openness is not abused. Remember that their time is limited; and if they have some advice for you they will tell you. When you cross the dojo to thank them, “arrigatou gozaimashita”, is sufficient. When you are part of a queue to bow your thanks, the last thing you should do is confront them with a list of questions; and never, never stop to ask a question during keiko. If sensei wants to tell you something he will; and you may be lucky enough to be part of a longer discussion later in the pub.