Disclaimer and Stuff

Firstly I would like to say that all of the material contained within this blog is of my own opinion and any inaccuracies in technical content or other's personal quotations are completely my own.

Secondly I would like to thank everyone in advance where I have used photos of you or photos you have taken. I have quite a library of digital photos and virtually no record of who took them so I hope you will take this general thanks as adequate gratitude. If there are any photos of you or taken by you that you would like removed please let me know.

Thirdly, some articles have been published on my dojo website if you would like to read them in an easier format

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7th dans achieved. Come and visit Ryoshinkan Iaido and Jodo Dojo Website at www.ryoshinkan.org

Saturday 12 May 2012

"Sensei" - a personal take

I was recently (and by that I mean in the last year) contacted by a friend (who will remain anonymous unless they tell me that they want to be known for this question) and was faced with the following question-based-email (as I will refer to it), English isn't their first language so I have modified it slightly:

Hello Andy,

Perhaps I have an untypical question to you but I know that your knowledge is vast in the scope of BUDO.
What appropriate assessment is the relationship between teacher (sensei) and student? What spiritual and mystical aspect is of this agreement? How actually to receive the word sensei from a pupil ?

Whether you know where I can find it or if the time lets you write please tell me briefly about it as you think.

I wish you calm days and Happy New Year ,

I promised to respond to this person on the blog as I thought it would be an interesting post to make and hopefully a good discussion to have.

Firstly let's look at the literal meaning...

先 = sen;saki, ma~zu: ahead, before, future, precedence, previous

生 = sei, shou; iki~ru, ika~su (and about a dozen other readings): birth, genuine, life

I'm sure many who study martial arts are aware that the compound meaning is something like "one who has gone before" or "one that is travelling ahead". In Japan, the word sensei is used as an honorific and reference to any teacher, whether that teacher is in a school, a workshop or even a head chef teaching trainees.

It should be noted that like other honorifics in Japanese, one never uses it as an attachment to their own name, so for example I might refer to someone as Tanaka-san or Ishido-sensei, they themselves wouldn't call themselves Tanaka-san or Ishido-sensei, they would just say "I am Tanaka" or "I am Ishido". The various references and honorifics in Japanese, whether they are used to elevate a person (san, sama, sensei, dono) or as an equaliser or demoter (kun, chan) are not used by the person to refer to themselves unless they are doing it in an ironic way. If someone writes to you and finishes it with the signature "Johnson Sensei" then they truly are a Johnson in the more vulgar sense. One also shouldn't have the word "sensei" inscribed on jackets, belts or business cards even if you are buying it for someone else.

It is, however, not incorrect to say that you are, for example, an English teacher by saying "Igirisu no sensei desu"; here you are merely saying that you are a teacher of English rather than honoring yourself. These are matter-of-fact statements.

In my opinion though, most martial artists (or at least the ones that I respect, dead or alive) prefer to follow a most humble path and would say that they are still students of the martial art they follow rather than saying "I am a budo sensei". They might say that they have students but I rarely hear any Japanese sensei making significant references to this fact.

All of these aspects are worth thinking about...what does this simple word really mean?

I should perhaps make a small diversion and briefly explain some other terms used to describe teacher and how they differ from the word sensei.

師匠 = shishou, has a more literal meaning of teacher and is closer to the concept of one's master (the first character shi or sui means commander or governor). If a student has fully signed their life away to a master in the traditional martial arts sense then shishou is a more commonly used reference than just sensei although the latter is perfectly acceptable as an honorific to such a person.

指導員 = shidouin, also means teacher, guide or counselor. This word is more technically describtive of someone who carries out the act of teaching (shidou suru = to teach).

館長 = kanchou, meaning the head of a place, a director (literally "hall chief"). This word is often used in reference to the person that owns and runs the school as well as the person who might well be the head teacher out of a group of teachers that teach there.

Anyway, that's that, back to sensei...

I want to stray away from what the technical term means and now talk about it's use in the martial arts.

For those that don't know me that well, I started my training in iaido and jodo in Japan while living there for two years. I had already spent about ten years learning martial arts in the UK such as karate, aikido and jujutsu so I wasn't new to the concept of having a martial arts teacher to respect and look up to.

When I started in a Japanese dojo it was of course quite an enthralling moment. Being quite technically challenging to the untrained eye, everyone else who was doing iaido looked like experts at it. At first everyone who I came into contact was by default teaching me something. This was the nature of the dojo. While there was a head teacher there (my first iaido teacher, Noguchi Sensei) the dojo had a very informal and relaxed atmosphere and everyone focused on their own individual practice; seniors would help juniors, peers would offer assistance to others. I was of course at an utter loss and so for the first 6 months or so I would be assigned a senior who would help me. To every single person who helped me I addressed them as "sensei" and it was the most appropriate thing to do. To put it into context these were people who were sometimes older than me, sometimes younger, and ranged from shodan up to nanadan. The term "sensei" wasn't meant to denote "grand master" or anything like that, it was a sincere mark of respect and kind of gratitude for their help. And so this is how my understanding of the general term "sensei" consists: when you line up to bow, everyone up the line is sensei and everyone down the line is pond scum (only kidding). We never used the word "sempai" or "kohai" and my understanding is that this term actually comes from a less-than-martial teaching tradition. In any case, the sempai would normally be the senior student and one that would shout "Sensei ni rei" in a Kendo dojo. I heard the term "sempai" used in a work context but never in the dojo. Maybe it was a regional thing....

And so it was back in the UK where I was surprised by negative comments made by people in the BKA that so-and-so was being referred to as "sensei" in their own dojo because they were only 3rd dan. It didn't occur to me that one had to be a certain grade to be referred to as "sensei". I was aware that at larger seminars the honorific was normally used to refer to the top tier of teachers there (maybe 8th and 7th dans) but if one kept referring to every single senior as "sensei" then conversations that started with the words "Sensei told me that....." would be quite confusing.

And here, in my opinion, is where we have become a bit mixed up. The notion that someone needs to be a certain grade to be a sensei has led to situations where:

  • Some dojo's have no sensei (by the dojo leader's own definition)
  • Some sensei's are derided by others when they insist that their students call them "sensei"
  • Some students in Europe think that teachers like Ishido/Oshita/Morita etc. are their sensei because they once went to a seminar where they learned from this teacher
  • Some students have no defined sensei which leaves the students feeling a bit lost and wandering
I would like to make reference to something Ishido Shizufumi Sensei explained about five years ago at a seminar as a basis for how we might start thinking about the "sensei" concept. He explained that in Japan the person that you first started learning from (i.e. the dojo leader of the dojo you started at)  was your sensei...for life. Only through logistical needs i.e. moving to another region so far from your sensei that travelling back to the dojo on a regular basis was implausible, would one be able to change sensei and then only through an agreement suitable to both incumbent and future teacher. He then went on to explain that just because someone had been to one or all of his European seminars and even been to train at his dojo, it didn't make him that person's sensei (by this he meant personal and singular sensei rather than just the honorific reference). He clarified that he actually only had six European students, his six monjin (literally, students, in order of dan grade for no other reason than it's a defined order): Jock Hopson, Victor Cook, Chris Mansfield (my teacher), Len Bean, Loi Ah Lee and Louis Vitalis (I might have misplaced Louis in the order there but I can't remember when he took 7th dan, sorry Louis!). He also defined a number of people to whom he had an advisory capacity in their training, his daihyo (or representatives). Everyone else was either a student of these people or were people who could come to his seminars of their own free will, there was no other category...

I found this very interesting, the label "sensei" was a sliding one and could be used in a certain context but one could, if not careful, use it inappropriately. To say to someone "You are my sensei" and to be then told "No you're bloody not, sunshine!" would be an interesting bite of reality. It is from this understanding that I take the next part of the discussion.

Some people WANT to be a sensei. They want students, they want followers, they want the respect. These may well be people to steer well clear of in my opinion. Why is this - not because I don't like arrogant respeck'-hungry people (although I don't) but merely a concern that these people probably don't understand the immense responsibility they are undertaking. A responsibility which I think is understood by more experienced teachers and thus one which shouldn't be greedily and ignorantly propagated.

And so we get to the crux of the answer to the original question.

I personally am not a shisho or kancho i.e. I am not a dojo leader and thereby the head of a dojo and not anyone's formal sensei per se. However, since our dojo members have propagated and while this happened while our sensei was in Japan, I feel a certain sense of responsibility for all our dojo members. If I was their formal sensei (which I am not I hasten to add) then these are some of the considerations I would have:
  • I would be responsible for imparting information to them at a time and in a way conducive to their own learning path and style.
  • I would be responsible for ensuring that while I cannot be an infallible exponent of the martial arts, I can ensure that my own training and learning is progressive i.e. I train, and hard.
  • I would need to keep track of my students' progress and making sure that they are adequately prepared for gradings.
  • I should ensure that their experiences within the dojo were of net positive value, that is not every session can be ultimately enjoyable and sometimes there are bad times but on the whole the student wants to be there and feels that they can learn and develop.
  • I should ensure that interactions between students was also positive, i.e. no one was being bullied or intimidated.
  • I should strive that our dojo's name was kept respectable such that my students would be treated well when at broader events such as seminars, gradings or taikai.
  • I would be responsible that the training that my students took part in would be healthy, physically, emotionally and mentally. 
  • That if any of my students behaved badly either within or outside the dojo, while I cannot take responsiblity for the actual occurance, that I would be responsible for how that student was dealt with.
  • I would be responsible for ensuring the longevity of the dojo through correct administration or delegating these tasks to those who are willing and able to do it themselves. 
  • That by inference, any behaviour that I partake in is by definition allowable by any of the students - that is, that I should be careful how I behave so that my students incorporate good behaviours rather than ones that I accept in myself but find abhorrent in others.
These are, I think, the minimal considerations (and not an exhaustive list, to boot). If someone wants to take students and make them European champions and demigods unto others then that's a whole lot of other responsibilities.  A lot of these responsibilities I am sure develop with time and experience. Many, if not most, of the dojos in the BKA were started by people at shodan level who wanted somewhere to train and gradually attracted people who also wanted to train. These dojo-openers were left with the perplexing task of being, by default, their members' teachers. I should hasten to add, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Like politicians, the reluctant teacher is, I believe, the good teacher. If they were faced with a list of responsibilities such as the one I listed above and told that these were the things that they had to fulfill to merely open a club, many might not have done so and a shame that would have been.

In Europe nowadays we have many people in our own countries or countries only next door which have senior and experienced teachers who by the marvels of modern transport are not so difficult to access. They might not however be accessible to every person who seeks to start training and that is where we have, mainly studious, people who open a dojo so that others can come and train if they want to. And there, within those humble boundaries, a sensei is made...

This person doesn't necessarily want or consider themselves to be a teacher but they want to train and they don't mind encouraging others to do so - someone has to pay for the hall rental and it can be quite a lot. As time goes by, with people "under" them wanting to learn more from this dojo-opener, the person trains harder; harder than any of their students. They travel further to learn more, they come back and share this knowledge, they drive their students to their first seminar and make sure they are looked after, they introduce their students to other people from other dojos who this person already knows. They remind their students that an interesting seminar is coming up and as it is a full three months away, the student might want to consider taking their first kyu. They bring a first-aid kit to the dojo and stick plasters on their student's feet when they injure themself on the floor. They are first to the hall and sweep the floor so that their students don't get grossed out by the dust and muck that their previous hall users left behind. When two of the students start arguing about a point, they quietly intervene and set the record straight. Without even knowing it they have become a sensei, not just the door opener but a leader and a well respected one. They are ones who have gone before and they are ones whose trodden path others wish to follow.

And this describes the vast majority of dojo leaders that I have met in Europe. There are some exceptions of course but these are in the minority.

But now come the hard lines. Some of these dojo leaders, club-openers, sensei, whatever you want to call them, don't want to be known as "sensei". They respect their own inspirational teachers too much to want the term to be diluted and deferred to them. These dojo leaders are humbled by their highly experienced Japanese influencers. They are neither masters nor teachers, they are just people who have opened a club and let others come to train with them. This unfortunately does cause a problem. Tanaka Sensei, the person from whom this person learned iaido/jodo/kado/shodo through many European seminars and visits to Japan, doesn't even know this person's students. The dojo leader can hardly point at a photograph of Tanaka Sensei and tell his dojo members "THIS is your sensei". How can this person (Tanaka Sensei) be their sensei? He doesn't come to their dojo, he doesn't teach them anything directly,  he doesn't check their keikogi before going onto their grading, he doesn't bring the first aid kit or the money tin to the dance studio where they train. No, that club's sensei is the person who greeted that shy and geeky student when they walked through the door.

The humility and respect for those further along the path does this dojo leader credit and much due respect in itself but for all their reluctance to be known as "sensei" they have become one. And probably a good one at that. Unknowingly they have probably already taken on board many of the responsibilities that I mention above and probably more. Their students might consider these people to be personal and personable friends even someone they might joke with or even ridicule in moments of good humour (and drunkeness). But, this person is their sensei and in the dojo they are such.

Other senior students in the dojo might (and I mean, might) be referred to as sensei as well, or sempai or Fred but the sensei is this one person.

For many of us in Europe who might have little understanding of the culture that most Japanese people were raised in (with what might be becoming a more pervading exception in modern times) this relationship is something that is gradually learned and developed rather than something that one starts in a dojo with. If one is lucky then all of these aspects might be explained to them on them starting if the dojo leader is an experienced sensei and has already established a good structure in the dojo with senior students who have taken on responsibilities themselves. In an ideal sense, the relationship between sensei and deshi (pupil) is almost a contractual one: you come and train here and trust what I teach you and I'll let you train here and try to teach you as to the best of my abilities.

I am talking in an idealistic sense here still and one that some might take getting used to. On the basis that "the sensei" is responsible for all their current students' wellbeing and personal growth, they may also have to vet people who come through the door, sometimes turning them away and sometimes letting them in. This is the sensei's perogative in their dojo (I emphasise this because I am aware that in some European countries, the martial arts club has to be part of a municipal body and thus have to accept everyone who wants to join within the limits of the dojo space): if they want a dojo full with young attractive women or strapping hunky lads then that is up to them (the smell of hairspray and/or testosterone might make it not the most nice place to be in though).

As Peter Parker said, with great power comes great responsibility. Maybe that should be modified for martial artists though: with experience and dan grade comes great responsibility and....not much else. In perhaps more older and traditional dojo in Japan, the master did have much power in fact. If they gave a bowl of disgusting food to their student and said "eat this" then the student would eat it; if they said black was white and white was black then the student would believe it too. Certainly in times when listening and taking on board the most trivial of a master's commands could determine life or death this might have been the best approach to take.

We don't live in those times and how much of that tradition we take up is really up to us. Some people see martial arts as a hobby, some see it as something else. Some see their dojo leader as not much more than their coach, others see them other ways. How a sensei creates this atmosphere may well be up to them but I don't foresee any students being sent off to kill another dojo leader or political figure....I hope.

So finally I want to break down the original question into chunks and make sure I have answered as best I can:

  • What appropriate assessment is the relationship between teacher (sensei) and student? I think I have answered this quite comprehensively. Ultimately the contractual one above I think is the most appropriate - I teach, you learn, I say, you do.
  • What spiritual and mystical aspect is of this agreement? I haven't really covered this mainly because I would only be speaking from my own opinion and aspect but I think you will understand my opinion on this if I explain that I would describe myself as an atheist, a sceptic, a secular humanist, a student of science and an environmentalist. I don't keep much stock in terms of spirituality or mysticism. I believe that the road opens differently for all of us and that the sensei is one who provides the context for "guided discovery". They shouldn't be or need to be the spiritual counsellor for something that is best discovered for oneself. They can certainly share their own experiences but the best teacher is the one that advises their students "to go and have this revelation yourselves, discover the world for what it is and not what someone tells you it is, be considerate, be careful and be adventurous."
  • How actually to receive the word sensei from a pupil ? As I have described it and as I think most people mean it. I respect you but you have responsibilities. If I call you sensei then it is because you have proved that my respect is well placed. I trust you and I hope that you trust me. I entrust the guidance for the development of my budo to your care even though it is me that has to walk this path. I will in turn help you to do your job as best as I can and I will do my best to support you and represent the dojo in a good light. If either of us step across a line then we will either have to withdraw carefully or walk away from each other. My respect is conditional as is your teaching.

For more on this subject I suggest you read the following link...


on General Omar Nelson Bradley, the "Soldier's General" and the model on which I try to be the best encouragment for others to train hard in the martial arts.

I hope my opinions are reasonably clear. I don't mean to be disrespectful to anyone, I believe that every dojo is a microcosm and an association is not a nationwide dojo but rather a collective of dojos, each with it's own sensei and structure.

That's me done, howabout you?

Thursday 10 May 2012

An Ukenagashi study

I got to the dojo in plenty of time last night to do a thorough warm up, stretch, do some cutting exercises and generally try to get some enthusiasm to train.

I had been feeling a bit poor about my Sogiri from the last couple of sessions and so thought to just hack through some of these. I must have done about twenty or so and varied the speed, direction within the dojo and eventually practiced doing the kata while turning a 90 degree curve, sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right - it's surprising how disruptive it can be to the cuts. I felt a lot better after doing this and Sogiri felt like it had tightened up somewhat.

I decided to then do some deeper practice into Ukenagashi and this, dear reader, is what I will devote the rest of this posting to...

Ukenagashi - The Basics

Let's first look at the grading points from the ZNKR manual:

  1.  When the parry is made does it protect the upper body well?
  2. Is the left foot brought back behind the right foot and the cut made along the kesa line?
  3. After the cut has been made, is the left hand in front of the navel and the sword tip a little below horizontal?

And also from the ZNKR Central Seminar Iaido Special Points Document:

    1. The left foot should be driven to a position inside the right knee with the toes pointing outwards slightly.
    2. At the point indicated above, the toes of the left foot should be aligned with the right kneecap.
    3. When the parry is made, the feet should more or less form an /| (Japanese katakana “i” shape).
    4. From the deflection into the cutting of the kesa, the flow of the form should ensure that the deflection is properly made, the kensen is not swung around, and the cut is made in one continuous flowing motion without stopping at the apex of kaburi.
    5. The drawing up of the sword (nukiage) is actually before the kensaki leaves the koiguchi
    6. The above means that the actual deflecting movement takes place just as the kissaki leaves the koiguchi and the right foot moves inside the left foot to form a Japanese “i” shape.
    7. At this point of deflection the body is facing the to the left of the shomen*.
*This last point seems to go through the greatest number of annual revisions.
It was also pointed out to us last night from Chris Sensei that the right foot does not have to butt up inside the left foot completely but should be in the right zone to roughly create the "i" shape.

The positioning of the feet and the lateral position change of the head has been the cause of much discussion in the last few years, in Japan as well as Europe. I try to follow my own lineage of teachers although it is always useful and interesting to listen to others. There are a few points which seem to be common to all opinions at the moment:

  • The head shouldn't move significantly from it's original position when seated (note that it is impossible to not move the head as one's hips raise - it's probably best to have the notion that the head is going to remain on the original cutting line throughout the kata; it's not going to happen!)
  • To facilitate the above, the positioning of the left foot should be that the body doesn't "walk" to the right as the kata progresses
Regarding that first point, I have personally had quite a few discussions with people about what the opponent is doing during the kata - do they aim for the head and then change the direction of cut or are they aligned with the knees and aiming for where the head is moving towards? I think the best answer I observed was from Yamazaki Sensei (from Shizuoka) who back in 1999 in Brighton demonstrated with Ishido Sensei as the uchidachi, how this form really works. Ishido Sensei came piling in with a full speed cut, Yamazaki Sensei stood up in an instant deflected and cut. It was some of the most dynamic iai I had seen. What was noticeable was that there wasn't the time for the uchidachi to re-establish targets and change direction, everything was over in a second.

Ishido Sensei always talks about rotating upwards as if changing a light bulb above one's head. This also helps to create the image of one trying to remain as centralised as possible. 
My personal opinion to base my own training is that I will endeavour to remain on my original line as much as possible but only in as much that it does not incapacitate my ability to stand up. I have quite strong legs for my bodyweight and if the form is slowing me down then I think that something in the basic shape is wrong.

Anyway, I asked Cezary to film me doing Ukenagashi, first four times with me just doing a natural Ukenagashi. I then slowed down and tried two times to limit my rightward movement.

Here are the first four:

And then the final two with me taking a bit more care about left foot positioning:

It is possible to see from the last kata on the final movie, the one which I consider subjectively to be the most compliant with the foot position rules, that some lateral head movement is unavoidable.

The residual frames and arrowed line demonstrates the course of the movement.

I believe there is a way of keeping the head at the same point but unfortunately it requires yoga-like movement and positioning the left foot actually next to the right. This requires a substantial amount of time and more than is required if the opponent is sitting a minimum distance from you i.e. within one sword + one arm length away.

I did notice from my embu's that one thing that I am not doing is allowing the sword to come up from the deflection to a position above the right shoulder. Instead I am letting the kensen swing behind me and am cutting from there.

I have in the last few weeks been trying to change that so that it cuts from approximately the same position from the upper point in Kesagiri. Still work in progress by the looks of things.

Anyway, as is my style of learning I scored and tracked my performance throughout using the main basic criteria set above. I changed the order of the criteria so that they more or less fall in the order of techniques in the form.

Gradually some improvements appear as I work through the kata but I really have to work on getting the kissaki up after the deflection. I was quite hard on myself as while I managed to keep the sword moving in a flowing movement I am always moaning at my other dojo members for cutting with the sword behind them.

I also noted some good points that I was attempting to keep to and I note them here:

  1. The right hand should move directly up and not outwards only to come back again.
  2. The right hand should make the deflection while over the right shoulder.
  3. All of the fingers of the right hand should remain in contact with the side of the tsuka throughout the movement.
  4. The sword should turn in the right hand when finishing noto so that the right hand finishes in a proper reverse grip of the tsuka.

Well that's quite a bit of work done on the blog, I'm off for a holiday (not really).

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Still going...

It's certainly become a bit of a struggle to keep up with the Shugyo blog, I'm either working, training or writing my other blog (as well as doing other stuff of course).

I have been trying to ensure that I get at least some token practice in at every occasion to do so. I am still giving lots of focus on my koryu but am now getting back to basic seitei training. I am planning to do my 6th dan grading again in Bologne in June, it's going to be an exciting adventure...

I think I am quite stoic about my grading now, I realise that there is quite a lot I can do to influence the result but some aspects may be utterly out of my reach. For those aspects I plan to work a different route.

So what have I achieved of late:

  1. After getting some feedback from Oshita Sensei on the phone I have retuned my Shohatto so that the seme between nukitsuke and furikaburi doesn't die. Initially this has had the effect of shortening my Shohatto but that might not be a bad thing, it now gives me some opportunity to stretch it out again without it becoming unreasonable.
  2. I have been working on my timing of Gyakuto especially with regard to the seme-step-cut episode after having watched my peers do it.
  3. Chudan has generally been given a lot of attention and I am trying to get Iwanami up to the same level as the other katas in this set. I am also using this to move Project Delta on...
  4. I have been doing more work on seated Okuden and especially trying to smarten up Shihogiri.
  5. Seitei-wise, things are generally moving on although I feel the need to work on my Sogiri as that has become quite weak of late, probably due to lack of practice...
Anyway that's it for now.