Onshi: Revered Teacher

Onshi: there is no single word in English. Revered teacher, beloved teacher: these are not natural English phrases. The single word ’teacher’ can refer to anyone from Verrocchio who taught Leonardo da Vinci, to an irritable old lady forcing spelling into unwilling children. Master can mean the head of an Oxford College (Master of Balliol College) to a barber with one apprentice boy. Some Continental languages distinguish: they use maestro for instance to mean a master pianist or artist, who also teaches, and a quite different word for an employer. In English we borrow the Italian word Maestro with that meaning. I suppose this shows that though we have respect for art and learning and science, we do not revere them or their teachers.

Recently a new word has been introduced to fill the gap, but again it is a foreign word: guru. Originally this is a Sanskrit word meaning a spiritual teacher. Literally it means heavy, and the English ’gravity’ comes from the same root. It is used now to mean a very wise adviser, not an employee. Professor Walters ‘was called Prime Minister Thatcher’s financial guru. She took his advice without question. But there is no evidence that she revered him.

The traditional Indian guru taught free, but the pupils lived in his house as servants. The awe of his holiness secured ‘ absolute obedience, though the ancient Manu lawbook does say that where necessary a stick may be used. There could be a guru of archery or painting, but there was always a spirit of reverence. A famous Indian artist, this century, had a promising pupil. He encouraged him to hold an exhibition of his work. It was much praised. A British critic stood before one picture and said to the young painter: ’You have your own style. But this one you have painted almost in the style of your teacher. And I must say, it is better than his pictures. The young painter ripped the canvas down and tore it up, saying: ’It is not my aim, that anyone should think I surpass my teacher.’

At sixteen, I began training under two traditional Japanese Judo teachers in London. One was Tani Yukio, whose grandfather had been a Jujutsu teacher, who had demonstrated before the then Shogun. The other was Koizumi Gunji, an artist and man of deep culture. His book on Japanese lacquer for instance was a classic. Tani was a small man, and his spectacular feats, at the beginning of the century, in defeating big wrestlers and boxers surrounded him, and Judo generally, with a magical aura. In general his methods were kindly, but a few promising pupils faced Fun-kotsu-sai-shin – translated for us (not by him) as Grinding the Bones and Pulverizing the Flesh.

So I had some experience of strict learning and teaching before I went to Japan. And I had invented a few austerities of my own. For ten years I never took a hot bath or shower. I used hot water reluctantly, to shave. I was quite able to stand under the ice-cold showers at the Kodokan and other dojos, for several minutes without flinching. But outside Judo, I had a few surprises. I studied Japanese with a teacher at the Kokusai Gakuyukai and later at the British Embassy. We used the Japanese Primary School Readers. I remember noticing the character for Oshieru, to teach. The Hen radical was a contracted form of Oi, an old man. The right-hand side Tsukuri was to strike, and at the bottom was the character for a child. So the character for ‘teach’ was: the old man hits the child. I asked the Japanese teacher whether this was still the idea of teaching, and he looked embarrassed and said:     ‘Oh no. These Chinese characters are very old, and in those days …….’                                                        ‘

But some years later I met an old Buddhist priest, who told me that when he was a boy he had learnt the Sen-ji-mon, the Thousand-character classic, from the same copy that had been used to teach his father and grandfather. He said to me: ’On some pages there were marks of tears, and not only that: some had the marks of blood. When I saw these, it made me study very hard!’

When I heard this, I thought of a school exercise book written by my grandfather when he was about eight. My mother had kept it as a souvenir. It consisted of simple sums: all the answers were correct, most beautifully written, with black and red underlining for the totals. She told me that in those days, at the end of every lesson the children had to write out perfectly the sums, as corrected by the teacher, in a perfect copy. It often took about 15 minutes. If they made a mistake, they had to stay behind after school and write it all out again, but correctly. This was supposed to be a training not only in accuracy but in neatness and perseverance also.

Tani and Koizumi were founders of Judo in Europe. Their Budokwai dated from 1918. They were determined to keep a good standard, and a good dojo atmosphere. At that time there were a number of fake teachers, who claimed to teach the secrets of Jujutsu for large fees. They gave their lessons in private; no one was allowed to watch. One day a young man, with an older companion, visited the Budokwai. The young man wanted to join. The older man said that he had already learnt Judo, from a private teacher. ’But my young friend cannot afford that amount of money, so he will have to learn here where the subscription is cheap.’ He watched the dojo practice with a contemptuous smile, and remarked to the secretary; ’This is just the surface of Judo You fellows do not know the secrets.’ The secretary was annoyed, and invited him to go on the mat, and try his secrets. ’Oh, certainly,’ said the man. ’But I am pledged not to teach them to you. You can feel the effect of them, but that is all.’ One of the Black Belts went on with him. The Budokwai man did not make any throw; he just waited to see what the other man would do. The latter put his right hand below his opponent’s left elbow, and his left hand on top of the other elbow. Then he jerked his right hand up, and his left hand down. Nothing happened. He looked puzzled. He did the same thing again, and again nothing happened. He looked bewildered, and said: ’I paid a hundred pounds for that trick. Every time I did that to my teacher, he was thrown through the air!’ ’Did you ever try it on anyone else?’ asked the secretary. ’No,’ he said, ’I have never been attacked. I was absolutely confident that I knew it, and it would work.’ In this way a number of people were swindled out of their money.

Mr. Tani and Mr. Koizumi were determined that the Judo movement should have a good technical foundation. The standard was kept high – the First Dan would correspond to a Second Dan ; in Japan. After two years, I was First Kyu, and took the examination for First Dan, the coveted Black Belt. There was  one other candidate; he was smaller and lighter than I, but fairly skilful. I was big and strong, and rather fast for a big man; I had some skill, but got most of my results by rushing the opponent. In the contests, we both did well against other First Kyu grades. Then we had a One-against-Six line-up. Both of us succeeded. Then we faced each other in a two-point contest; he made a mistake and was thrown with a big counter. While he was still a bit shaken from the fall, I charged at him and scored another throw. Now Koizumi and Tani briefly whispered together. They called out a Second Dan, one of the strongest men in the Budokwai. One-point contest. I was still pouring sweat , from the previous ones. But I felt I had nothing to lose, and charged at him. He had not warmed up, and did not react quickly enough. I smashed him with a big Haraigoshi. I went home that night very satisfied with myself.

The list of promotions was posted up the next day. To my amazement, my name was not on it. But the First Kyu whom I had defeated was promoted to First Dan. At first I thought it was simply a mistake, but the Secretary told me that this was a correct copy of the list he had received from the two judges.

I was furious. I went down to the changing room, rolled up my Judo-gi, towel and slippers, tied them with my humiliating Brown Belt, and left the dojo. I resolved I would never go back. That week-end, however, a Judo friend of mine called to see me.

I did not say a word about Judo. I was still simmering with anger and disappointment. Just before leaving he said, rather nervously: I overheard Mr. Tani talking to Mr. Koizumi yesterday. He was saying that even very good results, if they are got mainly by strength and speed do not quite qualify for a Black Belt.’

I thought about this during the week-end, and on Monday I turned up again at the dojo, and began practising, rather sulkily. Neither of the teachers, nor anyone else, said anything. At the next Grading Contests, I received the Black Belt. I now thought how lucky it had been that my friend had happened to overhear the bit of conversation between the teachers. Without that chance, I might have given up Judo. It was only later that I came to see how strange it was that these two Japanese should have been talking in English.

© Trevor Leggett

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