The recent anniversary of the passing of one of my kendo mentors made me reflect on how much we owe our sempai. A much used expression in kendo is “you can see the faults of the teacher in the keiko of the student”. Conversely the good qualities in a student’s kendo are a positive reflection of their teachers efforts.
In some cases, particularly in the west; our kendo is the result of a hodgepodge of influences from many different teachers. Often these teachings come to us diluted to the extent that their original owners would not recognise them. Whereas the people who had direct access to great teachers have their instructions imprinted in their minds, those who relied on the same information being cascaded down through a succession of sempai, receive a pale shadow of the original.
Still for those willing to make the effort, you do not have to live in Japan to “sit at the feet of a master”. In this age of jet travel and electronic communications, many of the strongest kendo teachers travel throughout the world giving classes and seminars and there is always the opportunity to watch them on Youtube.
As someone who has been lucky enough to spend some time with some of the current generation of hanshi and their predecessors, I am perpetually reminded of the fact that there is very little variation in the kendo taught today. Instruction styles vary from teacher to teacher, but the end product changes very little. As Sueno sensei recently said “There are many paths to reach the top of the mountain”.
Many of the old kenjutsu ryuha are still flourishing and nurture unique styles and techniques. A number of kenshi combine practise of one or more of these styles with modern kendo. In my experience, their keiko changes very little from that of the rest of us. Given that kendo now relies on a linear attacking style and fumikomi ashi, it would difficult to do anything radically different.
I suppose one of the reasons for the homogeneity of kendo, is that in its present form it is less than a hundred years old, and even younger if you count back to post-war reintroduction. When you talk to the current great kendo teachers they refer to the influence of sensei such as Nakakura, Nishiyama, Onuma, Matsumoto, Murayama, Nishi and others. These in turn, would I am sure, direct you to the teachings of Ogawa, Mochida and Saimura sensei.
In much the same way as horse racing enthusiasts will tell you that all of today’s thoroughbred racehorses are descended from the Godolphin Arab, kendo as we practise it now has come to us pretty much intact from the pre-war tenth dans.