Thursday, 23 October 2014

Approaching Respect, Honorifics, Titles, and Rank in Karate Do

How is respect shown in Karate Do? What do the ranks and titles really mean? These are questions that are often asked separately but in fact are bound together, in order to answer one we need to understand the other. With this in mind, this will either be a very long post or I will have to break up the posts into multiple sections to effectively answer the above questions.
Introduction & Background Information
In Japan, the social classes have always been sharply divided. This is still fairly evident  in  Japanese society even today and is particularly evident in the 道場 Dojo, Training halls of traditional martial arts. Signs of such social class divisions can be seen in the ideology of 敬語 Keigo which can be described as “an unwritten rule or code of conduct that stresses people must speak with each other differently, depending on their level or position in society.” Some of the things that determine the differences in social class are: age, employment position, experience, social standing, etc. For the most part this is easily recognized when the deciding factor is based exclusively on something like age difference. However, it can be difficult to keep these divisions so cut and dry in some cases. Take the work place for example, sometimes a younger employee may have a senior position. In this case, how should the younger but higher ranking employee address his senior but lower ranking co-workers? This particular example translates to the Karate Do context as well when a young person attains a high rank and assumes a teaching position in the Dojo teaching others who are older in age but of lower rank.
I have some experience with this example. Compared to some of the people that I have trained with over the years, it may be said that I have advanced through the ranks of Chito-Ryu Karate Do fairly quickly. I began practicing Chito-Ryu Karate Do when I was 10 years old. I attained my 初段 Shodan, First Degree Black Belt at the age of 17 in Nova Scotia, Canada under the guidance of Michael S. Delaney (He held the rank of 五段 Godan, Fifth Degree Black Belt and the title of 師範 Shihan, Master Instructor at the time but his title and rank were not the reasons we respected him). Before coming to Japan to work and live in 2001 I had attained the rank of 二段 Nidan, Second Degree Black Belt. I was 20 years old.
Even though, I had only trained exclusively in Canada before the year 1999, I had a very strong sense of the positions and responsibilities of 先輩 Senpai, Senior Student and 後輩 Kouhai, Junior Student. As I mentioned in my introductory post, I trained at the Atlantic Karate Club (AKC), located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. While I was training at the AKC, I could only advance in rank and position in correlation with the position of my Senpai. That is to say that, it would generally be unacceptable for a junior to overtake a senior who was training regularly in either rank or title. Therefore, in the AKC at that time, the top ranking practitioners’ positions were pretty much set and we all advanced together or not at all. As far as I know, this was the common practice regarding grading and advancement in the style across Canada.
(The Author sitting in front of the left-hand side mirror in the group of young students listening to Higashi Sensei teaching at the AKC, 1989)
I only knew the way things were run in my Dojo so this naturally defined the parameters of what I thought were common grading practices in Karate Do in general. I was somewhat surprised when I began training in Japan and found that this is not the case; students were not assessed according to the level their peers or those senior to them. At the 総本部道場 Sohonbu Dojo those who were eligible to be tested and met the preliminary requirements of being the appropriate age and had adequate training time booked we were all assessed individually. All of the assessments were made by the 二代目宗家 2nd generation Soke, Head of the Family Style of Karate Do. As a result I advanced much quicker through the ranks and titles of Chito-Ryu Karate Do while training as a young man at the Sohonbu Dojo. There is no question in my mind that I would not have advanced at the rate I did if I had continued to practice exclusively in Canada.

After coming to Japan I advanced in rank and title extremely quickly achieving the teaching title of 師範 Shihan, Master Instructor title at the age of 30 and the rank of 五段 Godan, Fifth Degree Black Belt at 33. (The same rank and title that Delaney Sensei held when I trained under him at the AKC) At the time I attained both the rank of Godan and the title of Shihan I was the youngest non-Japanese practitioner in Chito-Ryu Karate Do to ever achieve such a rank. This has and continues to put me in a very unique situation when it comes to the correct use of the different levels of politeness as discussed in this post.

(Chito-Ryu Karate Do Sohonbu Dojo Kumamoto, Japan)
Even though, I know I would have never advanced at the rate I did in Chito-Ryu Karate Do had I stayed in Canada. to this day, I honestly believe that my progression and the successes related to my growth in this organization are a direct result of the great people I have met along the way from my first 先生Sensei, Instructors at the AKC, Peter and Pat Miller, to my first Mentor, the Chief Instructor of the AKC, Michael S. Delaney, to all of my  先輩 Senpai, Senior students, namely Mitchell German and Gary Sabean, and all of the 後輩 Kohai, Junior student helped me along the way. It was the Sensei, Senpai, and Kohai in Canada who helped create the base of my understanding of Karate Do and fed my hunger to learn more.
(M. German and G. Sabean in Brazil, 1998)

I also know now that at some point along the way thanks to the people I met and the experiences I had without even realizing it I adopted some of the qualities that Denis Waitley attributes to 'winners' or successful people in his book ‘the Psychology of Winning’; the ability to understand our own relationship with our environment and the many people and events that we interact with in our everyday life.
I believe that the advice and guidance of everyone whom I have met through my involvement in Karate Do and the life lessons along the way have helped me, in one way or another, attain all of the various successes I have achieved throughout my life on multiple levels, personally, academically and professionally. Another factor that I feel attributes to our success is the ability to learning from our mistakes. We must try to find the positive in all of the trials and tribulations of life. In short, we need to develop mental the toughness that many Sensei talk about. This quality of character is a very personal thing and specific details are not often discussed outside of very close circles. It is rooted in our humility and willingness to learn from everything and everyone around us that directly contributes to our genuine strength of characters.
I have  been blessed to receive assistance in my times of need from those around me who have always helped me to get back on the right path when I began to stray. There is one saying in particular that resonated with me and I feel that it accurately describes this sense of responsibility to do your best while at the same time retaining the gratitude to those around us. If we always keep this saying in mind, I believe that we can attain a level of balance by remembering our place in the bigger picture. The saying goes, 上手に出来たら周りのおかげ、失敗したら自分のせい Jyouzu ni dekitara mawari no okage, shippaishitara jibun no sei. This can be translated as: Your successes are a result of those around you (but), your failures are no one’s fault but your own.
I first heard this saying while coaching the Senior High School (SHS) Karate Do Team with 村田克彦先生 Murata Katsuhiko Sensei the Chief instructor and Head Coach at 文徳高校 Buntoku SHS. This quote, that he often references, also describes Japanese society as a whole. There is a deeply rooted sense of responsibility that each of us must assume and carry out in our actions. When we do well, we must not forget those around us at the time and those who helped us along the way. This shows the amount of 感謝の気持ち Kanshya no Kimochi, Feeling of Gratitude to those who have helped us along the way. We show this in our everyday actions and the sincerity of our being. The flip side of this responsibility and perhaps our true test of character is proven when we fail because that is when we must take responsibility for our actions in their entirety (I will address this when I talk in more detail about 心 Kokoro, Heart / Spirit ).
(The Author and K. Murata Sensei at SHS Karate Do All Kyushu Championships in Okinawa, 2012)
Honestly, there is no simple way to present the intricate points of a topic like Keigo. However, I will attempt to make it a little clearer by providing examples from my personal experience. I hope that these examples will illustrate the supporting information which is now readily available in textbooks and on the Internet. The most important thing to understand, at this point, is that the traditional divisions of class are still present in the modern social structure in Japan and Japanese approach politeness comes from a place in their hearts and minds that emerged from a specific time in history which shaped the product of politeness in Japan today.
In the next post, I would like to take a closer look at some of the sentence structures that you can apply to your current Japanese language studies within the Karate Do context because the biggest shock that I experienced in my studies was the gap that lies between what we learn in the textbooks and how it is really used in context. (Please keep in mind the quality of adaptability when approaching your linguistic studies as well). The way something is taught isn’t always the way it must be applied. This true with practicing 形 Kata, forms of Karate Do and 分解 Bunkai, the parts of Karate Do Kata broken down for practical self-defence applications, as well. Please conduct your own research on these topics and add any comments of concerns. We need more information based on people’s experience to draw from. Therefore, I can’t stress enough the importance of follow up research on this and other related subjects. The information provided here is based on my own personal experience and the conclusions I have drawn as a result of them.

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