Building on Foundations

Ever since I started karate I’ve been fascinated by the rich history of this intriguing practice, and the stories of karateka past and present who have paved the way for the modern practices we have today.

As a teenager I ‘bought in’ to the grandiose stories of feats and near miracles performed by many of the past masters. Leaping bridges, walking on the ceiling, piercing meat with the finger tips and the defeat of countless armed attackers by a single unarmed karateka were just some of the stories that I devoured keenly.

Ultimately I started coming to the view that the grand masters of past were extremely talented and insightful bugeisha of their times, but would likely be comparable to mid-level black belts of the present. I say this not to denigrate them, but to respect the foundation they laid that has allowed following generations to build on their vision.

John Titchen made a brilliant post about this back in January (I know I am a bit slow on this, but I’ve been traveling for work) called ‘The Giants are Pygmies’

Matsumura, Itosu, Funakoshi, Motobu, Kyan, Miyagi, Mabuni, Ohtsuka to name but a few… these names ring loudly in training halls across the world. Their thoughts on karate are still read and studied. But these men are not giants by today’s standards, in fact in the modern world they are pygmies compared to many of the teachers with whom you could study.

His post reflects the thoughts I’ve long held. We should respect and honour the masters past for the amazing foundation they laid, and the best way we can honour it is to reinforce that foundation and continue to build on it.

We know a lot more now than our past-masters did. Science has moved forward, and we no-longer need woo or mysticism to explain things when our knowledge of physiology, biomechanics and physics can now explain that which was once unexplained.

The worst insult we can pay to the heritage of the forebears in lineages is to assume that was is complete, perfect and unchangeable.

The second worst insult would be to change things thoughtlessly, without fully understanding the foundation.

This is in many respects what the tradition of shu-ha-ri is about.

Shu-Ha-Ri reminds us that learning is a gradual process that includes the need to first learn the fundamentals (shu), to then explore and innovate on those fundamentals (ha) and finally to transcend them (ri).

In other words:

  1. Shu – learn how the foundations were laid, and fully understand their strengths and limitations.
  2. Ha – reinforce the foundations so as to extend their strengths and offset any limitations.
  3. Ri – build on the foundations your own unique construction.

The foundations are common to us all, we respect those that have gone before by fully understanding the foundations and then adding to the collective wisdom, before making our own unique expression.

Titchen sensei makes another great point about a tendency we have of putting people on pedestals.

We should respect those that have gone before us. But do not put them on pedestals or treat everything they said or did as gospel truth. Many of them had less experience and knowledge than either you or the person you train with. Honour their memory by carrying karate forward as they did and pay them the courtesy of respecting the reality of their humanity and fallibility.

I continually see even senior budoka putting seniors on pedestals. A high ranking karateka I know believes that his own teacher is “beyond reproach”.

This is delusional thinking, and quite dangerous. Certainly, we should respect the abilities of our teachers, but no matter how widely experienced, travelled and studied those teachers might be, they are just human and their knowledge has limits. This teacher is undoubtedly a karateka of great talent with over 50 years of study. This man is a human, expert in some aspects of human study, but as we all are, wonderfully normal in most areas of life.

Our role is to respect the foundations that bugeisha of years past have laid, and the reinforcements that have been added by subsequent generations, by learning these foundations completely, and perhaps one day adding to the collective wisdom through providing our own reinforcements to the foundations. This is the proper respect, not blind obedience and not-questioning.

Sempai

Scot Mertz wrote a very interesting post about the use and misuse of ranks and titles in Japanese martial arts, particularly karate. I tend to agree with most of his comments, which highlight the tendency we have in the West to sometimes draw more meaning into something that was originally intended. As a rule of thumb, titles in particular are overused in the West, in my experience.

During my time in Japan, my former teacher was the head of the dojo, and the hereditary head master of the school of karate in which I trained. His formal title was So Shihan, meaning something like general chief instructor, and he held the title of Hanshi, with the rank of 9th Dan. In the dojo, he was always referred to as “SenseiI”, and it was only the foreigners who called him by the title of Hanshi. Yet in the West, we commonly use Hanshi, Kyoshi, Renshi, etc to address people. While this is not necessarily wrong, its not reflective of the way those titles would be used in Japan.

One area that I disagree with Scot Mertz’s piece is in his discussion about the title “sempai” (sometimes spelt “senpai“). He makes the comment:

In a dojo there is a Sensei, and ONLY ONE Senpai. The Senpai is the MOST SENIOR STUDENT of that Sensei

This is not reflective of my understanding of the term sempai. The term comes from the Sempai-Kohai System, which is ubiquitous throughout all aspects of Japanese society. Sempai basically means “senior”, and kohai means junior, and the terms sempai and kohai describe a relationship between two people. The system is common throughout the Japanese university system, workforce and sporting activities, as well as budo.

As it describes a relationship between 2 people, one person can be a sempai to some people, and a kohai to others. In rare instances, they might be dohai to people who are their equal in age, rank, time of training, etc. These terms are not rank dependent, so even as a relatively senior instructor, I have several sempai, and some kohai.

They are terms, not titles, and in my experience in Japanese, it would be highly unusual to refer to someone as “Sempai John”, and you would NEVER hear the term kohai used as a title.

As sempai-kohai are terms of relationship, the terms bring obligation. As someone’s kohai, it is my responsibility to work hard, take on board their comments and suggestions, and try to anticipate their requirements when training together. As someone’s sempai, it is my obligation to be a role-model and mentor, to guide the person, and to help them correct any mistakes. A kohai is not the lackey or slave of the sempai.

Some organisations, mostly in the West, do tend to arbitrarily use the term sempai as a title for black belts, particularly those that aren’t instructors of roughly shodan and nidan levels (this can of course vary). It would of course be appropriate for mudansha (non-black belt holders) to address junior yudansha (black belt holders) in this way, but it seems in many organisations this has morphed into a formal title for these ranks.

So I can’t really agree with Mr Mertz’s opinion on the term sempai. I do agree with his perspective that the term is overused, and generally misused, and I for one would prefer to see its use minimised, and used to express relationship rather than title.

Oh, one more thing, in Japan it would be unusual for a senior person to address a junior with any title. They would simply use the person’s name with the suffix -san (or sometimes -kun). This doesn’t reflect any negativity. A senior instructor of, for example, 8th Dan level would rarely call someone “John Sensei”, even if John was a 7th Dan! But this would not be an invitation for lower ranks to address John by his name.

I guess the problem is that terms, relationships and titles are well understood in Japanese culture. But in the West, we have perhaps superimposed the Japanese titles and terms with the ranking system found in modern militaries.

Latest Iain Abernethy Podcast: Funakoshi’s 20 Precepts

Iain Abernethy Sensei has posted his latest podcast, a discussion on the 20 Precepts of Gichin Funakoshi, the pioneer of karate in Japan.

Iain does a great job of discussing each of the 20 precepts, and providing his own insight into them.

I always find that Iain’s works are thoughtful and insightful, and well worth the read/listen. Enjoy!