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.