|Adam Grandt, Deborah Klens-Bigman, Kiyama Hiroshi, Peter Boylan. Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2023|
I still remember clearly, the first time at the judo dojo in Omihachiman, Japan, that we lined up to bow in and there was no one to my right. I was so shocked at being the senior on the mat that I promptly forgot half the commands that the senior calls out at the beginning of practice. Thank goodness the dohai on my left remembered them and was kind enough to whisper them so I didn’t look like too much of an idiot. Maybe I should have realized that this could happen and made a point to really memorize the commands, but I never in my wildest imagination thought that I would be the senior person on the mat. Fortunately, on that occasion it didn’t last very long: about 10 minutes into practice a sempai showed up and I was quite happy to have someone else be responsible.
Being the senior in the room is one of those things that happens slowly, and then suddenly. We start training and we have no idea what we are doing. As the weeks go by and we get a sense of how things work in the dojo we don’t have to know much and we don’t have any responsibility. As the weeks turn into months we start learning some of the basics and we’re able to contribute a little to the dojo besides our dues and our ignorance. As the months turn into years we find ourselves helping beginners figure out that they need to step with their other left foot, how to take a fall or a strike, how to do the warm-ups and what the dojo etiquette is.
Gradually our place in the lineup shifts towards the deep end without us doing anything more special than showing up for practice regularly and putting some effort into learning what sensei is teaching. If you’re lucky, sensei will help you learn the senior ropes and maybe even have you teach occasionally while she watches so you can get some experience at the front of the room and start feeling the weight of being responsible for teaching well and making sure everyone finishes practice in health as good as when they started.
It’s not uncommon though, to be taking your time edging your way up the seniority ranks, when you show up to practice and sensei is out sick, or one sempai has to work late, or another has child raising duties…no one knows where the others are, but you’re in charge!
Dennis Hooker, the late founder of Shindai Dojo was fond of saying when asked how you become a senior martial artist: “Don’t die and don’t quit!” - that, and a little genuine effort to learn your art are all it really takes. Seniority certainly doesn’t take talent. If that were required I would still be a white belt.
Becoming a senior student is something that happens if you don’t quit and you don’t die. Succession in the martial arts is fraught with ego, but first you have to not quit and not die. One of the arts I train in, Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho, very nearly ceased to exist when the soke passed away, and then a month later his son and successor was killed in an automobile accident. Suddenly my teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, was the most knowledgeable person practicing Shinto Hatakage Ryu. He didn’t set out to be the head of the system. He was just learning it as best he could by copying what Noda Shihan was doing.
It doesn’t take planning and desire to become a senior; it takes the quiet dedication to show up for practice day in and day out. Then one day you don’t do anything new and suddenly you’re the senior in the room.
I’ve seen lots of people so desperate to be the senior at the top of the heap that they will start their own organization or even invent their own art. Somehow folks imagine being the senior is a glorious parade where everyone treats you with deference and you can do what you want. Being senior is the opposite of glorious.
What is often missed in training is that increases in rank aren’t rewards. They are weighted with responsibility. Every time you move up in rank, the responsibilities become a little heavier. As a white belt my responsibilities were to show up, and if I got to the dojo early, make sure I was on the floor sweeping it before anyone senior to me could show up and grab the broom. As you get more senior you get more responsibility. Maybe you start handling some of the record keeping, or you’re taking care of the bookkeeping. Then you start teaching occasionally. Then one day sensei asks you to take a regular spot on the teaching roster.
Rank doesn’t equal privilege. Rank equals responsibility. Kiyama Sensei passed away in September. That means that three of us who have been around long enough without quitting are suddenly responsible for everything that he taught us. We are responsible for teaching all the principles that he shared with us to the very fullest of our ability. We are responsible for Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho. We are responsible for whether this ryuha and these teachings live and contribute to another generation or are forgotten and lost forever.
what happens when you become senior. You get the responsibility.
Deborah Klens-Bigman, Kawakami Ryusuke and I received this
responsibility. If we fail, then Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho
becomes just another footnote in some books.
Everyone who does budo, whether koryu or gendai, has this responsibility to a certain extent. We are all responsible for the arts we train in. We are responsible to those who gave their time to teach us, and we are responsible to those who take the time to learn from us. Our rank just tells us how much responsibility we bear.
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In an art like judo or kendo or aikido, with plenty of dojos around, you don’t have to worry much about being responsible for the survival of the art. You still have the responsibility to your teachers and the other members of the dojo. If you’re teaching, you have responsibility to your students, and the responsibility to carry on the traditions of the dojo and to pass on the understanding of your teachers. That would be plenty of responsibility for anyone. Those who climb to the highest echelons of an art take on the responsibility of seeing that the art that is passed on to the next generations is a strong, healthy one.
Small styles like Shinto Hatakage Ryu are wonderful jewels. There are perhaps 200 small ryuha surviving in Japan. Many of them have only two or three or even just one dojo with a handful of students. In such an environment it doesn’t take long to find you have a lot of responsibility. When you're at the top, you’re responsible for everything in the dojo, from teaching the classes to making sure the toilet works. If you belong to a small koryu you might discover that you have at least some of the responsibility for the art living into the next generation.
That’s what happens when you’re the senior.