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Otomo -- The Sensei's Escort

Otomo means friend in Japanese. When I was in Aikido, I learned that the student who accompanies the sensei on visits or trips is called the otomo. He or she is the student who carries the sensei's bag, opens doors, and sees to the sensei's needs. The otomo is usually one of the senior students.

The otomo must be very alert. He must respond to the sensei's needs before asked. He walks behind the sensei, but must move ahead to open a door in such a smooth manner that the sensei does not have to stop. The otomo has no time for his own needs. He must be focused solely on the sensei. Needless to say, the otomo must also be prepared to defend the sensei -- even though the sensei has superior skills. The otomo must anticipate and prevent (or intercept) an attack.

In meetings between two seniors, it is possible that both will have otomo. The otomo will usually sit or stand behind their sensei and say nothing at all during the meeting. Even if the other senior or a host asks the otomo if he needs anything, he will usually refuse in a polite manner. The otomo is not there to carry on a conversation or enjoy the food. He is there solely to provide for his sensei's needs.

This may sound very subservient, particularly to those of us in the United States. It sounds like slavery. In my opinion, it is not that way at all. Honestly, the otomo is in training to become a sensei. By following the sensei and observing firsthand his actions and interactions, the otomo learns invaluable lessons. In addition, the otomo learns to be totally aware and focused on his duties. It requires incredible focus. It is budo in the real world outsude the four walls of the dojo.

If there is a meeting between a sensei with an otomo and another sensei who does not have an otomo, the one without an otomo will utterly ignore the otomo. This may feel awkward to an otomo who does not know what to expect. However, to that sensei the otomo is almost invisible. This is not arrogant. It is simply how otomo are viewed (or not viewed).

I heard somewhere that when Choki Motobu meet with Jigoro Kano, Kano Sensei brought a student. I assume that this student was an otomo. At some point during the meeting, the student made a face at Motobu, at which point Motobu told Kano that he better control his student or Motobu would. This must have ended the meeting and caused bad feelings. It could have been that Motobu did this to show his displeasure with Kano. By blaming the student, Motobu could end the meeting. However, the otomo should have been exceptionally careful to give no offense. He was not there to make faces or show his emotions. He was there to escort his sensei. If the otomo did make a face, even if only slightly, he failed his sensei and caused him embarrassment.

Today, I find that very few students understand the role of the otomo. It is not something spoken about very much. Only the oldest sensei seem to still practice the tradition. It might be more common in Kendo, Iaido, and Aikido, than in Karate. However, I feel that acting as an otomo is an important part of the traditional training of senior students.

When I practiced Aikido, I would often come to class early and wait in the parking lot for my sensei. When he arrived, I would greet him and carry his bag. As I recall, he would carry his bokken or jo (in a case) and I would carry his bag.

One day he told me, "you know, you should not be doing this." "Seniors should."

I was only a junior student in Aikido, but already a yudansha in Karate. I said, "well Sensei, there are no seniors here to meet you so until they come, I will carry your bag if that is alright with you." When he nodded approval, I was so happy.


Charles C. Goodin