Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Being Senior In Japan

 
Iseki Sensei in his dojo.  Photo Copyright 2016 Peter Boylan

I was in Japan in November to take my 5th dan test in jodo. I arrived a week before the test so I could prepare. My friend Bijan had come along to take his 4th dan test. There are so many people who’ve been training for decades in the dojos in Japan that I’ve never really had to think about what seniors have to to.

Bijan and I had arrived at Iseki Sensei’s dojo and we were ready to go. The regular class has a variety of students; from 5th dan-holders like Mr. & Mrs. Fujita all the way to unranked beginners. I’m still not really used to being on the senior side of the room in the dojo in Japan, but that’s where I am.

Matsuda Shihan visits a few different dojo around Osaka that look to him for leadership and teaching.  Iseki Sensei’s Yoshunkan Dojo is one of them. Hotani Sensei’s dojo in Shonai is another.  Both Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei are 7th dans who were highly ranked before I started jodo.  The nafudakake (name boards) in their respective dojo are loaded with senior students ranked 5th, 6th, and 7th dan. All these high ranking students in a dojo where they aren’t the teacher. What are they doing?

Traditional dojo, especially koryu bugei dojo, aren’t run the same way dojo for modern arts like judo, kendo and aikido are. The teachers don’t demonstrate techniques and have everyone try/copy/follow along. They don’t run them like drill sergeants with the teacher barking commands and all the students leaping to do what is called out. All those high ranking students are wonderful resources that traditional dojo make frequent use of.

Practice in the dojo may start out looking familiar. In Iseki Sensei’s and Hotani Sensei’s dojo we start with the basics, but it’s once we’re warmed up and past the basics that things start to change from the more well-known models of practice. We pair off, each junior with a senior student, never two juniors together.  In traditional dojo one of the key responsibilities of senior students is working with beginning and junior students.  Developing good fundamentals is too important for the dojo and the future of the art to allow beginning and junior students to flounder without strong, experienced supervision.

Even in a small dojo, the teacher can’t be everywhere. Senior students are responsible for a lot of the learning that happens in a traditional dojo. In traditional dojo like Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei lead, the seniors have a lot of responsibility. They aren’t there just to polish their own skills. Being a member of a koryu bugei comes with a broader responsibility than just paying your monthly dues and getting your lessons from sensei.

During my last visit, when we lined up to bow in, it was clear that I was well into the deep end of the dojo. I can’t pretend to anyone that I’m one of the juniors anymore, not even to myself.  The juniors get embarrassed if I try to line up below them, and the seniors don't wave me away anymore when I offer to help take care of things in the dojo. After the warm-ups, the seniors lined up one side of the dojo and the juniors lined up on the other side of the dojo.

We worked our way through the paired kihon practice, with the seniors acting as uchi tachi (as uke is called in Shinto Muso Ryu). Iseki Sensei called out the techniques and the seniors guided and directed the juniors’ practice by adjusting the spacing and offering the correct opening for each attack being practiced. As the juniors practiced honte uchi and hikiotoshi uchi and maki otoshi  and the other fundamental techniques, the seniors were responsible for helping them learn the spacing and range of each technique.

After working through the kihon, we moved on to the kata. The Kendo Federation’s standard jodo is made up of 12 kata done as a pair with jo and tachi. For this part of the practice, each junior was again paired with a senior. This time the senior’s responsibility was to guide the much more complex application of the kihon  techniques in the kata themselves. For this the senior had to know both the jo and tachi side of the kata deeply.

This, for the seniors, meant not just going through the motions of the tachi side correctly. The senior had to adjust the speed and intensity of the attacks to match the lessons the junior was learning. Too slow or gentle would have resulted in  the junior not being challenged. Too fast or hard and the junior would have simply been crushed under the power of the senior’s attack. Either way, the junior would not have had  the opportunity to learn anything from the practice.   

The junior I was partnered with only knew the first 7 kata, so when we got up to the eighth one we cycled back to the first kata and worked through that again. Sensei will decide when a student is ready to learn a new kata. On the senior side, I had enough work adjusting the way I performed the tachi’s role to suit the learning level of the particular person I was working with.

My technique was challenged when it was time for the seniors to practice with each other. Then my partners pushed me to the edge of my skills and made me reach for a little bit more. The week  before the godan test, Fujita San, one of Iseki Sensei’s godan students, worked with me almost every day, acting in the role of senior so I could learn the lessons Iseki Sensei, Hotani Sensei and Matsuda Shihan wanted me to learn. Fujita San kept the intensity and power of the practice at a high level so I was always challenged to do just a little bit better.

The responsibility of being senior in the dojo doesn’t end with helping juniors learn to practice. In Japan, the seniors make the dojo function. Sensei doesn’t worry about taking care of the dojo or introducing new students to the routines and jobs around the dojo. At the end of practice, it’s not the newest students who are running to grab a broom and sweep the dojo.  It’s the seniors. Just as we are training in a martial way, each dojo has its own way of cleaning up, taking care of the dojo, and running practice. It’s not Sensei’s job to introduce new students to customs and rhythms of the dojo. That’s the job of the seniors.

When I go to Hotani Sensei’s dojo in Shonai, it’s the seniors who run to get the covering for the tatami mats unrolled and secured before class. After the class the seniors run to roll it up and put it away. When a new student starts, the seniors quietly explain the proper formalities of bowing in to the dojo, and the starting and ending formalities for practice. The seniors help new students figure out what sort of equipment they need, and give advice as to where to get it.

Often someone will have brought some omiyage (souvenir or treat from a trip), or some other treat to share with the dojo. After practice is over, it’s the senior students who get the cups out, pour the drinks and distribute the treats, not the beginners. When it’s all done the seniors make sure everything is cleaned up and put away.

One of the signs that you’re really a member of the dojo is when people start letting you help out with a lot of these things. There’s no hard and fast rule about this, but until you’re allowed to help, you’re sort of on probation with the members of the dojo. You can offer to help, but more often than not your assistance will be politely declined.  When people start letting you help, it’s a good sign that you’ve been accepted. When people start looking at you like you know what you’re doing and they are looking to you to lead something, you know it.

Helping out and taking care of things for Sensei is one of the best ways of saying “Thank you. I appreciate you teaching me.” Being part of a dojo in Japan is not simply an economic exchange. All budo in Japan, not just koryu budo, have a significant social and cultural aspect that may be quite foreign to someone who trains in a commercial dojo where you simply pay your dues and come to class. When you join a dojo or a ryuha, you’re joining a living group with traditions and ways of doing things that you are expected to learn and contribute to. Everyone takes care of the dojo, sweeping and cleaning and washing. Everyone finds ways to take work out of Sensei’s hands so she doesn’t have to worry about all the details of running the dojo.

Just as the seniors are the ones that Sensei relies on to help the juniors get the most out of practice, they are also the ones Sensei relies on to keep the dojo running smoothly. The seniors in the dojo don’t get to rest on their rank and seniority. Instead they are expected to assume more responsibility, whether that is by guiding junior students’ practice by being effective partners, or helping clean up after practice, or coordinating an enbu (demonstration) or some other dojo activity. I’ve been around Iseki Sensei’s and Hotani Sensei’s dojo for so long that I really am one of the seniors. Now I have to live up to that responsibility.