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Posts Tagged ‘Sensei’

Remembering Chiba sensei

IMG_0257On Wednesday we lost a great kendo teacher. Chiba Masashi sensei, hanshi, hachidan passed away. He had continued to fight the effects of a stroke which he had three years ago and he seemed to be winning, having retaught himself to speak, walk and write. He had made the journey to Yoshino this spring to view the cherry blossoms and was full of plans for other journeys. I saw him in Tokyo last February at his house in Nishi Tokyo and he was talking about making another trip to the UK.

He never gave up. Before the stroke he had undergone a cancer operation and when I visited him in hospital I had expected to see him in bed. Instead he was dressed in a track-suit demonstrating men to a group of Hitotsubashi students.

I first met Chiba sensei in 2006 when we invited Arima sensei of Osaka Police to attend The IKET Embu Taikai and Seminar in Edinburgh. He had a prior engagement and introduced Chiba sensei, who immediately won everybody over with his style of kendo teaching and his perpetual sense of fun. Since then I had continued to meet him at least once a year either in seminars in the UK or on my visits to Japan, where no matter how busy he was he always found time for me.

Over the years Chiba sensei was one of the most high profile kenshi in Japan. He was half of a golden couple, with a wife who had been a member of the volleyball team which won gold in the Tokyo 64 Olympics. Their house is the only home I have visited with his and her trophy rooms. He of course was a 3 time winner of the All Japan Championships, beating all comers with his unique style of Jodan. He had been Shihan of Keshicho and Hitotsubashi University and held appointments in Tokyo Kendo Federation. Throughout his kendo career he never failed to impress in shiai and it was always a joy to see him crack in one or two of his magic kote from Jodan at the Kyoto taikai.

Despite his fame in and out of Japan, he was always self-effacing and down to earth. We were drinking together with some other friends after the 8th dan grading in Tokyo, when jet-lag and few too many oyu-wari took their effect on one of the party. Chiba sensei suggested that we carry our friend to a taxi which could get him back to his hotel. We were making our way to the taxi rank with me at the head end and sensei holding the feet when a crowd of kenshi approached and asked for sensei’s autograph.  Without batting an eyelid Chiba sensei draped our friend over the bonnet of a parked Nissan, signed the autographs, picked up our friend and continued our journey.

I am sure that many kenshi around the world can tell similar stories, but I certainly owe my 7th dan to Chiba sensei. Sensei spent considerable time analysing my faults and trying to fix them. I even had a 2.00 A.M session in my kitchen with sensei working on my footwork. To make sure that I didn’t slack he left a to-do list with Yanai sensei to keep me following orders.

Chiba sensei was kind, generous and funny although he did not shy away from honest advice where it was needed. I remember him being asked “how can I improve my jodan” to which the answer was “give up”.

Forgive my indulgence in setting out my own personal recollections of this great man. Many hundreds of others will have their own special memories, but I am sure that we will all remember him with love and gratitude.

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Courtesy of Eurokendo

Courtesy of Eurokendo

I was asked for my thoughts on how best to influence the future development of British kendo and came to one simple conclusion – ensure that our dojo leaders are equipped to pass on practical and theoretical knowledge to their students.

Traditionally the transmission of kendo knowledge is from teacher to disciple. A novice would seek out a master and place himself completely in his care. Usually no outside influence would cloud the relationship until the student had grown into a capable swordsman; in effect completing the shu stage of shu-ha-ri.

Such an important relationship was based on mutual trust and kendo history is peppered with stories of would be deshi waiting for days outside dojo doors or being made to undertake months of menial tasks before picking up a sword. In return the teacher was expected to know all there was to know about the practice and philosophy of kendo.

Today’s reality is very different. Newbies can join “taster” classes at their local sports centre or sign up for kendo amongst a list of other activities at “freshers” when they start at university. The chances are that the leader of these classes may also be at a relatively early stage in his or her kendo career, so it is a matter of learning together. Come to think of it, some of the great Hanshi confess that “teaching is learning”, but back to the point, it is not unusual for dojo leaders outside Japan to need occasional help in filling gaps in their own knowledge to enable them to give the best to their students.

The syllabus for the ZNKR’s Kyoshi examination concentrates on transmitting correct basic technique information through shinai keiko, kata and the bokken ni yoru keikoho. It also focuses on correct reiho and attitude and most importantly talks about the instructor as a role model. I have been particularly privileged to have studied with several senior teachers who have influenced not just my kendo but how I want to live my life, but very few of us can even hope to emulate such positive influencers. Instead we have to do our best with what we have.

It is said that you can identify an instructor through his student’s mistakes, so it is important that as instructors we continue to seek knowledge and develop our own kendo. Of course we can brush up on theory with books and on-line resources, but to improve technically and to really understand how the philosophical elements of kendo connect with the physical we need to find our own teacher. Few of us can put our lives on hold while we travel “to sit at the feet of a master”, but we can attend seminars or invite teachers to visit our dojo.

For students and teachers alike kendo is nothing without continual learning.

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Sensei!

SenseiA friend who teaches Kendo in the UK’s West Midlands told me about another local martial art (not telling you which one), instructor who has the word sensei tattooed in large gothic letters on the back of his bald head. To my mind not a good move. As well as the potential problem of a permanent redundant label if he gives up, (a bit like tattooing a lovers name before you get chucked), it demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what the word means.

Sensei is a courtesy title, so you can’t apply it to yourself without looking at best, confused. The literal meaning is “born before” and in normal Japanese society it is reserved for doctors, teachers, lawyers, politicians etc. If you are inside one of these groups, then you would use the sensei title for senior or more experienced colleagues, whilst using san or kun as appropriate for juniors. In Japanese, sensei is a suffix, so the correct usage is after the person’s name. It is Smith sensei, not sensei Smith. In kendo sensei is usually reserved for 6th dan upwards and even then infers that he or she is older or more experienced. Fighters in the Kyoto Taikai are announced as such and such sensei, whereas younger elite kendoka are announce as so and so senshu in the All Japan Championships.

Sempai too gets a great deal of misuse. In its natural setting it indicates someone older, your senior at school or perhaps someone who started kendo, or at the dojo before you. In the UK the term, is applied to the person at the head of the student line who shouts instructions. Within the original meaning of sempai and kohai (the junior member of the partnership), relationships are fixed on a lifelong basis, regardless of eventual status changes. I was unfailingly amused to regularly hear an 80 year old addressing a 79 year old as kun and kimi (honorific normally used for young boys and “you” form used for children). Of course both sides of the partnership have their own responsibility. The kohai normally packs and carries bogu bags and the sempai softens the blow of regular criticism by buying the drinks

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