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Correcting Your Sensei

Generally, don't.

I attended a seminar where senior instructors were visiting from Okinawa. One of the visitors taught a kata which apparently differed from the way it was taught at the host dojo. One of the students turned to the host sensei and said (in a loud voice), "you taught us wrong!"

This certainly is not the way to correct your sensei. Actually, you really cannot and should not correct your sensei. It is not appropriate for a student to do so, particularly in front of other students. What the sensei teaches is the right way. He can change the movements, the order, the bunkai, even the names of the kata. The sensei is the sensei.

If you have questions about what he has taught (and why he has taught it), it is best to ask him very politely in private (or at least at the side of the dojo). It might be that the sensei has made an error and will correct it. It is more likely that he is working on a certain topic and is using the kata to make a point to the class before him. The kata are not written in cement -- they are flexible tools for developing a wide range of Karate skills.

You should never say, "you made a mistake." Instead, you might say, "Sensei, I am a confused about the movement you just taught. I had been doing it differently and want to do it correctly. Shall I do it the way you just taught?"

He might say, "no, I just taught it that way for the beginners." Or, "yes, now I want you to try the movement this way." You will never know unless you ask (very politely).

In Japan and Okinawa in the past, students generally did not ask questions because it was considered rude to do so. Students would simply do as instructed. They might discuss a movement among themselves, but would not ask the sensei. Of course, some openminded sensei would entertain and even encourage questions even back then. It all depended on the sensei.

If you are going to ask a question, the main thing is to do so politely and in a way that will not embarrass the sensei if he has actually made a mistake.

I was filming my sensei performing a bo kata. It seemed to me that he was doing it a little bit differently each time. Because I was trying to make a record of the kata, I asked about the discrepancies. He answered (I am paraphrasing), "yes I do tend to do the kata differently depending on how I feel at the moment."

For a rigid thinking person, this answer would be difficult to accept. In my case, this was a perfectly acceptable answer and explained a lot about how my sensei views kata. He does not have a fixed interpretation.

He added, "you might try the kata this way or that way." "You might teach the entire sequence to beginners, and as they advance they can be more flexible in their inclusion of certain techniques."

You should also be careful because if you do "try" to correct you sensei, you could be viewed as rude. You should make sure to frame it as a polite question rather than a correction. It is exceptionally important for you not to look like you are questioning the sensei's skill or competence.

If you make it seem that you do not like or accept the "new" movement, your sensei might feel that you are attached to the "old" method and not teach you anything new... ever (or at least for a long time).

I was practicing Iaido and made a certain cut. The sensei came up to me and corrected the movement. I (stupidly) said, "sensei, I have been doing that cut that way for many years." He replied, "yes, I thought it was time to correct you." I felt about two inches tall.

When your sensei teaches you something, keep your eyes and mind wide open. Try not to miss anything. It may be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Literally, there are some things you might be taught only once in a lifetime. Don't miss the moment by comparing what is being taught now to what you learned before. There is plenty of time for comparison and reflection later, and any polite questions you have can be answered best in private.


Charles C. Goodin