Thursday, February 5, 2015
My friend and colleage, the Rogue Scholar, has posted an excellent follow-up on the subject of rei 礼. She looks at an vital aspect of it that I had not really touched on, the aspect of rei as a means of self-restraint. Her essay is well worth the time to read, and can be found at http://roguescholar-nyc.blogspot.com/2015/02/more-on-rei.html Please take a look and let me know what you think.
Monday, January 19, 2015
One mistake I’m beginning to get over, is thinking that proverbs I hear in the dojo are not general to Japanese culture, but are somehow specific to budo. Every time I’ve thought that, I’ve been wrong. Japan was run by a warrior class for hundreds of years. Needless to say, with that kind of history driving the culture, references to budo are quite common in everyday society. When things are very serious, it’s a “shinken shobu” 真剣勝負, a match with live swords.
There is a phrase often heard in budo circles that came up in a discussion recently. “Budo begins and ends with a bow.” The original Japanese is 礼に始まり礼に終わる (Rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru). omitting any reference to budo. This phrase is common in Japan, where everything begins and ends with a bow. It’s also where we non-Japanese trip over the translation.
The “rei” 礼 in “Rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru.” is commonly translated as one of three things; bow, courtesy, or etiquette. Each of those is correct, and each of them is wrong. Each is correct in that it captures some component of rei. Each is mostly wrong because it misses the majority of the ideas, meanings and feelings embodied in the concept of rei.
Rei turns out to be a much larger concept than any of the simple translations suggest. This isn’t the fault of the translators. “Rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru.” is a wonderful little aphorism and when doing translation, you can’t stop in the middle of the work to add your own 3 or 4 page explanation of one quick phrase, so you go with what feels closest to the intention of the particular passage.
As the diagram above suggests, there is a lot more wrapped up in rei 礼 than any of the simple translations might suggest. The definition below is from the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary.
1 〔礼儀〕 etiquette; decorum; propriety; politeness; courtesy; civility. [＝れいぎ(さほう)]
2 〔おじぎ〕 a salutation; a salute; a bow; an obeisance;
3 〔儀式〕 a ceremony; a rite.
4 〔謝辞〕 thanks; gratitude; acknowledgment; appreciation.
When I first started my journey in the world of Japanese budo, meanings 1 and 2 above seemed the most important to me. The further I journey the less important those become, and the more emphasis falls upon the fourth item “thanks; gratitude; acknowledgment; appreciation.”
Etiquette, courtesy and bowing are all external forms. If those forms are empty and just something you do, they have no meaning. Fill that bow, that formal etiquette with sincere feeling of thanks, gratitude, respect and appreciation and it comes alive for you, and for whomever receives it. Budo is a way, and a part of that way are the forms of etiquette and courtesy.
The forms aren’t there just to look nice. They are there to teach us something. When we first start training in a way, they teach us the proper forms so we don’t look like fools and annoy other folks along the way. At this stage, folks like me have enough trouble just remembering the proper movements and when to do them. When we forget something there is always some supercilious fool who is more concerned with form than content who is thrilled to demonstrate their superiority by correcting us in the most embarrassing way possible.
As much as I feel sorry for those who have to deal with supercilious fools as they progress along their way, I pity the supercilious fools even more. They’ve missed the entire point of the practice. Etiquette and courtesy are things we should be giving to everyone, those above us and those below us. The most senior, accomplished and masterful martial artists I have encountered are also the most courteous, patient, polite, respectful and forgiving. They have learned and internalized the lessons present in the forms of etiquette and politeness that we use during practice. When they bow, it is not an empty gesture because that is what is expected from them. It is a meaningful symbol of what they think and feel.
First we learn the forms of etiquette and courtesy. Then we learn to fill these empty vessels with gratitude, respect and every other feeling that is valuable. There are many, and I doubt that I have learned them all. The first one, the most obvious, is respect. The first bows in our journey along the way are to our teachers when we are introduced to them and they welcome us as fellow travelers on their path. It’s easy to bow with respect to them. They will probably be looking for signs that our respect is sincere, and certainly a worthy teacher will bow with respect for her student. After all, the teacher understand intimately just how difficult the journey is, and respects the student who earnestly desires to travel it.
Similar respect is due to all our fellow students. They are showing up for practice, working with us and letting us work with them. And this isn’t ikebana or cha no yu, but budo! If someone is in the dojo practicing with us, they are giving us their body to use for our training, even as we return the favor and let them use our bodies for their training. This is true whether it is judo or aikido or kenjutsu or jodo or naginata. We are training together. How someone cannot respect a partner who is giving you the gift of their healthy body to train with I cannot fathom. Every time I bow to a training partner it is with respect and honor to them for the great gift they give me by training with me.
That feeling led me to the fourth meaning of 礼 rei in that definition above, thanks, gratitude and appreciation. I really do appreciate my training partners. I couldn’t go any further along the budo path without them than I could without a teacher. True budo is not an isolated practice. It only happens with other people. I respect my teachers and fellow students, but even more, I am grateful and appreciative of them. They make all my practice possible. They give me the gifts of their time and their experience and their wisdom and their bodies to train with. They don’t have to give me any of these things, but all are cheerfully and warmly given.
My gratitude is especially deep when I consider my teachers. I really can’t think of one good reason that Yoshikawa Sensei or Takada Sensei, or any of my other teachers should have been willing to put up with an an uncouth young guy who had only the barest understanding of etiquette and proper behavior, and whose Japanese was certainly not up to the task of easy, clear communication.
Takada Sensei and Kiyama Sensei in particular are wonders to me. They both fought in World War 2. They had no particular reason to love their former enemies. They have both so transcended that sort of thinking I am amazed whenever I consider it. Takada Sensei used to take great pleasure in explaining the progress of the world by showing them the sword he used for practice. It is a beautiful blade from the 1500s that has been in his family for hundreds of years. It is a huge, heavy beast of a blade made for the wars in Japan at that time. In the 1940s, as Takada Sensei was going off to war himself, he had it remounted with the saya and tsuka of a Japanese infantry officer so he could carry it. It is still mounted that way. He would point out that 60 years before he had carried that sword to war to kill Americans, but now he carried it to share his culture and art with Americans. He had grown, and so had the world. I miss him very much.
Kiyama Sensei is another amazing man of that generation. A fighter pilot during the war, he and Takada Sensei had studied iai with the same teacher in the 1950s. When Takada Sensei passed away, Kiyama Sensei graciously accepted me into his dojo so I could continue my journey. He has welcomed me and taught me and corrected me when I started down dead end paths with warmth and firmness, with courtesy and respect. I’m not special there though. I’ve often watched him at the end of kendo practice. All of the students, from those in kindergarten to those in their 50s and 60s, take a moment to kneel with him, bow and say “Doumo Arigatou Gozaimasu” or “Thank you very much”. Sensei returns every bow with focus and sincerity. He never tosses off a quick bow so he can get on to something else that might seem more important. There are always seniors and other teachers talking with him at this point. He always stops and gives every student, no matter how young or old, his full attention. When they bow, he bows just as deeply and offers them the same appreciation “Doumo Arigatou Gozaimasu.”
How can a teacher of Kiyama Sensei’s rank and status give so much attention and respect to even the smallest of children? He is no longer following the proper etiquette. Kiyama Sensei acts with the full meaning of 礼 rei. His etiquette is guided by his appreciation and gratitude and respect for each of his students.
How else can I bow when I think of Takada Sensei and Kiyama but with gratitude and appreciation and respect?. Takada Sensei is no longer with me, but I can see that through the study and practice of the violent arts of budo, he and Kiyama Sensei transcended simple etiquette. Kiyama Sensei clearly does respect all of his students. His gratitude and appreciation for them for joining him on this journey is obvious when I think about it.
This is the lesson of rei ni hajimari rei ni owarimasu. Simply following the etiquette is merely the first step. With practice we hope to learn to respect everyone. We strive to appreciate each person we meet on our journey, and to be grateful for the good they bring into our lives. Pretty deep ideas to hide in some stuffy etiquette. Everything begins and ends with rei.
Monday, December 1, 2014
The next stop on our musha shugyo 武者修行 journey was Kusatsu City, in Shiga Japan. The gasshuku wrapped up at noon, everyone headed back to the hotel for lunch, and then it was over. After walking around Kashima Grand Shrine with our friend Watanabe-san for a while, Deborah, Adam and I got the bus for Tokyo, where we caught the Shinkansen (bullet train) for Kyoto. Traveling by high speed train has airplanes beat for many middle long distances. More leg room, walk up and get on, no one assaulting you with lousy airline food, someone coming by with a lovely food cart offering any option you might want to purchase. The best way to travel.
Because of the time we spent at Kashima Grand Shrine, we got to the hotel late. At the hotel we discovered they didn’t have a reservation for us. After some work and a phone call to the US, we figured out that the travel agent booked us into a different location of the same hotel chain than he had thought he did. 15 minutes in a taxi later we were checking in to our hotel for some good sleep.
The next day we were planning to spend the whole afternoon training Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho with my teacher, Kiyama Sensei. Sensei turned 90 this year, and we were very much looking forward to seeing him and getting his corrections. Since this didn’t start until noon though, we decided to hop over to Ishiyama Temple, a quite old and famous temple in Shiga. Founded in 749 CE, it’s said that Lady Murasaki began writing The Tale Of Genji there. It’s also one of the stops on the Kannon Temple Pilgrimage route. In the fall, it is famous for it’s beautiful maple trees, and since it was early November, we decided to see if they were changing.
We got out of the taxi and were greeted by the Nio 仁王 or Guardian Kings. Statues of these guardians stand to the left and right of the gate to every major temple in Japan. The fearsome warriors guard the Buddha, the bodhisattvas and their teachings from harm. The statues are magnificent. We stepped through gate and entered the temple grounds. We were lucky, since the maple trees had started to change from green to brilliant red. A week later and the temple would be a spectacle of scarlet leaves, but we were pleased to have as much as we did. Some years the color is gone by the end of October.
|Ishiayama Temple Nio Copyright Peter Boylan 2014|
|Ishiayama Temple Nio Copyright Peter Boylan 2014|
It’s a strange sensation to walk paths and see sights that were written about a thousand years ago, but these are the same sort of connections we feel when we train in koryu budo. We are doing arts that have been passed down for hundreds of years and making deep connections to ways of thinking and being that originate deep in the past. Training in old budo styles isn’t about learning the newest, the most popular or the flashiest. It’s about making connections between the past and the present, and discovering within seemingly dusty, old kata the truths and wisdom that have kept people practicing them for generations and centuries.
|Color at Ishiyama Temple Copyright Peter Boylan 2014|
We climbed a long set of stone steps up to the level of the main temple buildings. Like all temples in Japan it is wooden. Age and the smoke of candles and incense has darkened everything. The smell of the incense is permeates the building. The floors are polished smooth by the action of all the feet that brush across them every day. Like most temples there is no photography inside the main temple building. We offered prayers for friends and teachers, continued through the grounds. The main building hangs off the side of the mountain, and offers a wonderful view through the trees.
|Ishiyama Temple through the leaves. Copyright Peter Boylan 2014|
Next to the main temple, is a small room decorated to show how Lady Murasaki might have looked while staying at the temple and writing her novel. The contrast of this with the modern DVD player showing a video about a Lady Murasaki robot is striking, but also emphasizes how the past continues to connect to and influence the present.
After wandering around Ishiyama Temple for a couple of hours, we caught a taxi back to Kusatsu Station where we were to meet Kiyama Sense. We got there and didn't see Sensei yet, so we waited by the bus stop where we usually meet him. After a few more minutes and no sign of Sensei, I decided to check a couple of other corners to be sure he wasn’t in a car waiting where we couldn’t see. I didn’t see him anywhere, and as I was heading back to my friends, on a whim I dashed upstairs through the station. There was Sensei waiting for us. He laughed when I told him where we were, and we headed down to gather up my Deborah and Adam.
Sensei asked us where we would like to go for lunch before we started training, which began a very common, and somewhat comical, exchange for Japan. No one wanted to push anything on Sensei, and he wanted to make us happy, so we all danced around with gentle suggestions for a few minutes. Eventually we settled on a tonkatsu restaurant near the station that Sensei really likes. Lunch was excellent. One aspect of training in Japan that I have gotten used to, and perhaps finally come to peace with, is that around my teachers my money is no good. If I am with Sensei in Japan, I cannot buy him lunch, I have to let him do it. Instead of me showing my appreciation for his care, and expressing my thanks, he buys lunch for me. This was no different.
Sensei quietly arranged to buy lunch for us. I’ve learned not to push and try to pay. It’s a different social dynamic than the one I grew up with in America. Sensei is expressing his care and responsibility for us. We are his students, and he is responsible for us. In return, we are responsible for always representing him wherever we go. Our actions are extensions of his actions. If we, his students, do anything, it reflects directly on him. He takes care of us and shows his concern. We show we care by making the effort to train with him, to truly learn the lessons he is teaching, and by truly passing those lessons on to our students. It’s a much tougher way to express our appreciation for everything Sensei gives us than just buying lunch for him. We have to really work at this. Just whipping out my credit card to pay for something doesn’t cut it. Today, Deborah and I were showing it just by being in Japan and bringing along one of her students to train with Sensei, showing him that we are working to extend his care to another generation of students.
So none of us protested when Sensei paid for lunch. We said “Domo arigatou gozaimashita,” bowed deeply and got ready to show him our appreciation at practice. We gathered up all of our gear (dragging around a bunch of swords and our training uniforms can be interesting in space challenged Japanese restaurants), and headed out. It’s Japan, so we had no trouble getting a taxi to the dojo.
The dojo is a beautiful building. As an American, I’m insanely jealous. Pretty much every town in Japan has a lovely, public dojo. The Kusatsu Budokan is no exception. For 550 yen ($5.00!), anyone can rent the matted Judo/Aikido space or the beautifully polished wood kendo/iai/kenjutsu space, or even the sumo dohyo. American cities don’t have anything like this. This space is amazing. The Judo dojo is has two fully matted competition areas. The kendo/iai space is huge, with easily enough room for 4 kendo shiai matches to be held simultaneously. Sensei had reserved the kendo/ia dojo for the entire afternoon, so we got changed and started warming up.
Sensei said his knees were bothering him, so he hadn’t brought his sword, just a bokuto for demonstrating particular points. He dressed in a lovely black hakama and uwagi, while we put on our usual, faded, blue, training hakama and keikogi. We bowed in, and Sensei started running us through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. We ran through each kata several times, and Sensei made some corrections. Sensei reminded me of how great a practice session can be. This was one example of classic training.
Sensei stood at the front of the dojo holding one end of his bokuto (bokken), and he’d call out a kata, or just say “mo ichi do” (once more). Then he’d bang the other end of the bokuto on the floor, filling the room with a great wooden “thunk!” and we’d do the kata. I’ve been training with Sensei for more than 20 years, so I know what he expects to see from me. If I didn’t do it, he’d tell us to do the kata again. Usually I knew what I didn’t do right, and I’d try to do it without Sensei needing to explain. Deborah hasn’t been training with Sensei nearly as long as I have, and Adam has only been at this for a little more than a year, so Sensei stopped practice a couple of times when wanted to make a point for them.
I felt a little sorry for Adam trying to keep up with us. Deborah and I are familiar with the whole Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho system. Adam hasn’t been at it very long, but he worked hard to keep up with us, even as we moved into unfamiliar kata. I was busy just staying focused and doing my best for Sensei. I suspect some of the many repetitions of the kata were for Adam’s sake, so he could see Deborah and I do the kata and then do his best to recreate what we were doing.
Just before the first break, Sensei had us doing some of the Tatehiza No Bu. Tatehiza hurts when you first learn it, and even after more than 20 years, it’s still not what I would describe as comfortable. Adam was trying it for the first time. I remember well trying to figure out how to maintain my balance while basically sitting on my ankle. I fell over a lot then, and Adam was having similar trials now. We worked on it for a while and then took a break for for some liquids.
We were all working hard. Drilling kata non-stop is tough, so the drinks were welcome. While we were getting drinks and catching our breath, Kiyama Sensei was checking out our swords, which we had laid down at the front of the dojo while we went out to the vending machine. His curiosity about his students’ swords was clear, and we were happy to have him look at them. Sensei is quite a bit shorter than I, but he and Deborah are about the same height, so I suggested that her sword might be a good match for him. He said “Really?” and looked at Deborah. She said “Dozo” and he pulled it out and tried the heft.
We all backed off to give him room, Sensei raised it above his head, feeling the weight and balance. He swung it down in a great arc into a dead stop. He swung it for a while, demonstrating the big swing and powerful hips that make his iai so incredible to watch. Even at 90, with new knees that hurt some days, his iai is relaxed and powerful. The sword doesn’t waver or falter. The cuts stop with precision, as if he were burying the blade in a block of wood. Sensei’s legs were hurting him, but he swung the sword for about 10 minutes anyway. His motion was completely natural and he smoothly transferred the power of his koshi to the sword without any tension in his arms.
Eventually his knee started to really bother him. Sensei gave the sword back to Deborah and sent us out on the floor to train some more. Since Adam was still learning tatehiza, Sensei took pity on him and had us go through the Omori Ryu set from the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu. Sensei would call “Again” and thump the floor with bokuto until he was satisfied with how we did the kata. Then he would say “Next,” bang the floor with his bokuto and we’d do the next kata in the set. There were no pauses. We trained. Occasionally Sensei would make a brief comment, and the training would continue. It was intense, but not harsh.
This is great, traditional training. We didn’t stop to talk. We trained. Sensei didn’t have to tell us to work hard. We each put everything we had into every kata we did. The last few years I’ve been focusing on Shinto Hatakage Ryu, but I got the definite message from Sensei that he wants me to start doing Eishin Ryu again too. He didn’t yell at me, but I could tell he was disappointed that I haven’t kept it up very well. I guess I know what I’ll be adding to my training.
When we were all dripping, Sensei called another break for liquids. After that Sensei told us to review the standing kata from Shinto Hatakage Ryu. He called out “Number one,” banged the bokuto on the floor, and off we went. We did each kata 3 or 4 times before we moved on to the next one. Sensei stopped after that, came out and made some comments about how we could use our koshi. Then we were right back at it. “Do the tachiwaza again.” We worked through those and we were getting close to 5:00 PM. Sensei said, “Do Ippon Me Mae one more time.”
We did it, straining to make exhausted legs and hips and glutes and lower back all deliver full power. Following an afternoon of almost continuous iai we were exhausted. That’s old school training. I know I’m guilty of too much talk when I’m running my classes. I need to be more focused. One thing I should know, but was constantly reminded of, is that improvement comes from training, not from talking. Sensei made very few comments, but every one of them was crucial to doing good iai. He gave us a few corrections, and lots of chances to practice them. It was a great example of how to run keiko.
After doing Mae we lined up and bowed out, first to the kamiza, then to Sensei, then to each other. The old saying 武道は礼に始まり礼に終わる “Budo begins and ends with rei. 礼 “rei” is bow, it is manners and gratitude and etiquette. Yes, we begin and end with a bow, and the bow is good manners and proper etiquette. What I feel most strongly when I bow at the beginning and end of practice though is gratitude. I am unendingly grateful to my teachers. Takada Sensei certainly had no good reason that I can think of to take on a loud, incomprehensible, and frequently uncomprehending, American. I will eternally be grateful to him for accepting me as an iaido student.
Kiyama Sensei was an iaido student with Takada Sensei when they were beginning, and after Takada Sensei passed away, he accepted me into his dojo. He has been very patient teaching this rather slow and thoroughly talentless, crazy gaijin his wonderful iaido. His willingness to teach me, and to reach across the linguistic and cultural barriers to do it has been incredible. He has shared the core of what he does, and more, worked incredibly hard to communicate it to me. He has welcomed me a as his student more than I could have ever hoped.
For all of this and many more things, it is with gratitude that I bow at the beginning and ending of every practice. I bow with this gratitude whether Sensei is there to receive it or not. When I’m teaching or if I’m training alone, the same feeling is there. It means a lot though to be able to do it while Sensei is at the front of the dojo.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Someone asked me about how you show respect towards your teacher on and off the mat in Japan compared with the United States. As it happens, I’m getting ready for a trip to Japan and I’ve been thinking about that bit lately. Respect should be fundamental to any relationship, and that’s particularly true in budo, where what we’re just practicing is dangerous because of the nature of the techniques. If you don’t respect you teachers and partners, or if they don’t respect you, things can get ugly very fast. Respect is essential before you even begin training.
I see a lot of different ways of requiring and showing respect in the West. I’ve seen dojo that made me think of images of military basic training from the movies, with everyone standing rigidly at attention and screaming out their responses to the teacher’s commands and comments. I’ve seen other ones that were so quiet it was amazing. The students and teachers said almost nothing. The students kneel, the teacher demonstrate something a few times, claps, and everyone spreads out to practice what was demonstrated. All without a word. The dojo I’m most comfortable in are probably a little too chatty for optimal practice, but the same can certainly be said of me. These dojo are relaxed. The teacher leads and demonstrates but the students are comfortable asking questions frequently, both when the teacher is demonstrating new things, and when the students are working on things on their own.
In each of these dojo, the teacher is shown respect, but it feels different, and results in a different sort of relationship with the teacher. There are teachers who expect to be obeyed instantly and who seem to stand above their students. It’s tough to imagine a student doing anything that might be interpreted as questioning the teacher’s understanding or ability, in the dojo or out of it. Regardless of what sort of person the teacher really is, the feeling generated is imposing and doesn’t leave room for difficult questions.
Other teachers seem almost like priests sharing mystic secrets. Their technique is beautiful and powerful. Everyone works to duplicate it, but asking questions just feels out of place and rude, not just to the teacher but to the other students. The attitude shown towards the teacher shades from respectful into reverential. The teacher is the leader and the guide who makes sure you don’t become lost. Questions are inappropriate.
Then there are the chatty ones. They seem more like regular folks. They are sharing their practice as much as they are teaching. The dojo is neither a place of stern external discipline, nor a peaceful place dedicated to quiet striving. These dojo often seem surprisingly laid back. The teacher sometimes seems more like the the lead student than a teacher. The teacher is including the students in his practice and taking them along on their journey along the way, whatever way it may be. Questions are freely asked. It’s entirely possible for someone to respond to a lesson with “I don’t think that will work.” The teacher probably isn’t offended though. More likely the response will be, “OK, let’s try it.” The teacher is further along the path than everybody else, but she’s still on the same path and the students are exploring it with her. The students look to the teacher for leadership, but the teacher isn’t very different from the students.
That’s three basic types of dojo and teachers. I know that each can run to extremes that are awful. The stern, disciplinarian dojo can become brutal and hurtful, abusive and dangerous to anyone who doesn’t toe the line perfectly. The quiet, peaceful, reverential dojo can become cult-like and mystical with little room for anyone who questions the leader in any way. The relaxed, friendly dojo can devolve into a bunch of friends goofing around where no one is really teaching or leading and everyone is just there to have a good time. I’m not going to focus on the extremes here though.
Most dojo aren’t really one of these. Most dojo are some mix of all of them. These are martial arts we’re talking about, so some sort of disciplined behavior is a requirement just for safety’s sake. There is nothing wrong with good discipline in the dojo. When we talk about budo, we are talking about a Way, a means of developing the self through the practice and perfection of a common activity, in this case martial arts. A little bit of quiet, spiritual thought and atmosphere is always appropriate. Even the hardcore, super disciplined dojo I’ve been in usually start and end class with a brief period of meditation and quiet thought. Teachers are usually a mix of all these traits.
Students show their respect for teachers in and out of the dojo in many ways. I have met a few teachers outside Japan who insist on being addressed as “Sensei” both in and out of the dojo, though these are blissfully rare. Most teachers, myself included, blend the formality of the dojo and their local culture, and separate which is dominate by location. In the dojo even the chattiest of sensei have to have a little formality to prevent injuries
In the dojo, we expect students to use formal, dojo behavior, with bows and proper forms of respect. All the bows to teachers and fellow students are clear, visible actions of respect for the teacher and your fellow students. It can feel extremely stiff and unnatural for people from cultures like the US where most formalities have been abandoned. It’s a good lesson though.
|This is part of a formal bow. Not every style uses the bowing form found in Karate, Judo and Aikido |
In Japan respect is built into the culture in ways that may have been true in the US 75 years ago, but it certainly aren’t anymore. Respect and politeness go hand in hand, and Americans have traded politeness for brutal honesty and the expectation that almost any sort of behavior will be tolerated. In Japan, all of those polite formalities are critical.
The closest analog to bowing is probably the military salute. The salute recognizes and pays respect to people of higher status. Bowing in Japan does the same thing, but with far more levels of nuance. Japan is a society that is obsessed with social hierarchy and everyone’s place in it. Contrast this with the American visceral dislike for hierarchy and insistance that everyone is equal and you can see that when the two mix, discomfort and confusion are guaranteed.
It may surprise some people to find out that I’ve seen all these same sorts of dojo described above, in Japan. I’ve seen a couple of other variations as well. The super disciplined, militaristic feeling dojo are often seen in modern budo styles like kendo and karate. These are dojo where everyone lines up, screams the dojo kun, and then does all the same exercises screaming and being screamed at. This is not terribly traditional. This sort of dojo behavior only goes back to the early 20th century as the modern budo were co-opted by the military government and used as means to instill samurai values in the peasants who made up the new army. Granted, the emphasis on everyone doing the same things together was an inescapable effect of trying to train hundreds of people at the same time, but many of the worst aspects of the Japanese military of the period became common in those arts well, including hazing and abuse of juniors by seniors. Over time this has been diminished, but it still is seen far too often.
The very quiet, spiritually focused dojo is probably less common inside Japan than outside. If you look, you can still find some of the most incredible examples of excess focus on the spiritual and mystical to the detriment of practical budo in Japan. In these dojo the sensei is more like a great mystical leader and guru than a budo teacher.
The koryu dojo that I have trained in are probably the most unexpected for non-Japanese. Koryu dojo don’t have nearly as much external discipline and signs of hierarchy as are found in the modern, post-war gendai budo dojo, nor are they terribly mystical, even in systems with a strong connection to Buddhism or Shinto. Usually there are few if any outward signs of rank, and the formalities are generally less formal. That doesn’t mean everyone is not aware of their relative position in the dojo, just that external expressions aren’t necessary. In contrast to some teachers who are decked out in beautiful obi, hakama and uwagi, Kiyama Sensei often has the most worn, patched and threadbare outfit in the room. Each person comes into the dojo, bows individually, and begins practicing in a corner of the room. There is nothing visible to distinguish who the teachers are until they start giving instruction to individual students.
Regardless of the style of dojo and teaching though, in Japan everyone is intimately aware of their position in the dojo’s hierarchy. People outside Japan often ask about using dojo titles outside the dojo, or how you show respect to someone outside the dojo. In Japan, a title is not just an honorific, it is a reflection of who you are in society. When a person becomes a section head in company there, everyone stops using their name. They become “Bucho.” Literally this means “Head of the Section”. Even his wife may start using the title to address him. When I was teaching school in Japan, everyone called me “Sensei,” including my Japanese mother-in-law. In Japanese culture, your role in society is who you are, so yes, in Japan you call your teacher “Sensei” everywhere, inside the dojo and outside.
|Respect isn't just shown by bowing and using titles. Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis.|
Another aspect of showing respect is something people who don’t speak Japanese will completely miss. In Japanese, every time you say something, you are also emphasizing your position in the social group relative to the person you are talking to, and the people you may be talking about. In Japanese, you can’t say anything without expressing your relationship to the person you are talking to. It’s not just the words you use. To conjugate a verb correctly, you have to know whether the person you are talking to is above or below you in the hierarchy. Even if you don’t call your teacher by name or title, everything you say in Japanese makes clear your relationship.
In Japanese it’s very easy to show respect just by using verb conjugations and forms that emphasize someone’s high status, or conversely, expresses your lower status. On the other side of the coin, you can be incredibly rude simply by using the wrong verb conjugation. Instead of using a form that indicates whomever you are talking with is of high status, you can use one that indicates they are of low status. Japanese doesn’t have many swear words of the sort common in English because if you want to insult someone, you can do just by conjugating your verbs differently and implying your target far beneath you.
In the dojo and out, everything about Japanese culture expresses your relationship with your teacher. How deeply you bow is important (Americans always bow too low to just about everyone). A student always wants to bow lower than their teacher. In Japan you address your teacher by his role as a teacher, so she is always “Sensei.” This can be confusing.
When I taught in Japan, I was usually addressed as “Sensei.” Even my budo teachers would refer to me as “Sensei” or “Peter Sensei”. The confusion came as people who didn’t know me tried to figure out my role in the dojo. Once they understood that was my job, they also understood that I wasn’t teaching in the dojo. The first few times this happened though, no one was more confused than I was. Later on, Takada Sensei referred to me as “Peter Sensei” to some new students and I went into shock while my brain tried to process. He was placing me in the dojo hierarchy for them. This way the new student knew to listen to me if I said something.
When we were just talking alone, I went back to being “Peter Kun.” Kun is a honorific that is used when adults talk to children, when someone senior wants to express a certain friendliness and affection towards the junior. This happens a lot in business relationships between senior managers who will take a young colleague under their wing and mentor him. It express a certain familiarity and warmth. When Takada Sensei called me “Peter Kun” he was saying he liked me. It wasn’t a put down. He was exaggerating the social distance between us and suggesting the closeness of a teacher/parent to child relationship. In our budo relationship, this was exactly what it was.
To maintain distance with someone, the easiest way is to stick to calling them “So-And-So San” This is the bland, standard, generic form of polite address. There is no particular emotion attached to it, and the formality is fine with strangers. The generic form doesn’t connect you with someone, so it holds them out at a distance. It’s not rude, but it doesn’t invite you in either. This is how strangers address each other. It’s how colleagues at work talk to people they know a little bit but have no strong connections to. It’s also how you talk to someone you don’t like but have no reason to be rude to.
The key in all of these is “in Japanese culture.” Japan is a different culture, and different cultural rules apply. If you don’t want to be rude and make people uncomfortable, you do things according to the local culture. If your teacher is culturally Japanese, call her Sensei all the time, inside the dojo and out. If your teacher is from the US or Europe, that’s probably not a great idea and will likely make the teacher feel uncomfortable outside the dojo.
Showing respect is about letting someone know you appreciate them and hold them in high regard. It’s not about slavishly following them and praising them. In the dojo do what is appropriate for that dojo. Call your teacher “Sensei.” Outside of practice use the forms of respect that are appropriate in your culture. If you’re in Japan, call her “Sensei” all the time. If you’re in Chicago though, Ms. or Mrs. or her first name, depending on how she prefers to be addressed. Just like you do with everyone else. Don’t go overboard with the titles and trying to be more Japanese than the Japanese when you don’t even live there. Relax.
One more thing. If you really want to let your sensei know how much you appreciate her, show up for class on time or a little early, and ready to train. Train hard. Help clean up the dojo after practice. Then buy her a drink. Teaching budo is thirsty work. I can’t think of any of my sensei who don’t appreciate a cold drink after practice.