Karate Thoughts Blog

Contents   /   Email  /   Atom  /   RSS  /  

1700+ Posts... and Counting

Won't Ask, Won't Tell

Older Japanese men in Hawaii can be very hardheaded and difficult to understand (unless you understand their ways). This is particularly true of the nisei in Hawaii who were taught old style Japanese values by their parents but also learned to function here in English and pidgin in the then Territory of Hawaii. Among the strictest of the Japanese were the budo (martial arts) teachers. These teachers of Kendo, Ju Jutsu, Judo, Aikido, and Karate were even more old style and many remain so today.

We sometimes say in Hawaii that an old style Japanese man is samurai. There is a joke that a particularly difficult man is not samurai but daimyo. The most hardheaded of all is shogun!

There is an expression I heard many times in private from my older sensei: "If I have to ask, I won't ask. If I have to tell, I won't tell."

I will give you an example of the first part. Let's say I am outside mowing the yard and my wife asks me why I don't ask my able bodied sons to help. I would then say, "If I have to ask, I won't ask." Older Japanese men never like to ask for help -- from anyone. They don't like to complain either -- about anything.

Now let's consider the second part. Suppose a student is bowing incorrectly and this student is my senior. I speak privately with my sensei and mention the bowing issue. He says, "I know he is bowing wrong, but if I have to tell him, I won't tell." And to make it worse, I cannot tell the student either because he is my senior. So nothing gets done, unless another senior (senior to the student) gets involved. But often, the seniors are not aware of their duties in this regard. Bowing is just an example. The student could be doing something more seriously wrong.

So if your sensei needs something, he won't ask, and if you are doing something wrong, he won't tell. This makes perfect sense to me because I have seen it so often over the years during my training. To tell the truth, I do the same thing and I am only a 48 year old shin hapa nisei (new half second generation Japanese).

I want to repeat this because it is so important. If your sensei needs something, he won't ask, and if you are doing something wrong, he won't tell.

Let's say that you offer to help your sensei. He'll probably say, "no thanks." Let's say that you ask your sensei if you have done something wrong. He'll probably say, "no." It will be up to you to ask in such a sincere and insistent (but polite) way that you will overcome your sensei's tendecy to hold back (see: Enryo Suru and Please Correct Me).

Another thing you might do is to ask one of your seniors. He or she might be in a better position to advise you about helping your sensei or correct you if you are making a mistake. If they do not know the answer, they can consult the sensei and ask for advice.

But the threshhold is for you to be sensitive to and aware of your sensei's needs and about your own behavior. Training hard is not enough. You have to constantly examine yourself under a microscope.

My 16 year old son recently went on a Kendo trip to Canada. One of his sensei took the group. I told my son, "You have to be helpful. You must not let adults carry bags if your hands are empty. You must not let women open a door. You have to help the person before they even realize that they need help. You have to be aware at all times."

After the trip, I spoke to my son's sensei. She complimented my son on being so helpful and attentive. She was shocked that a 16 year old would act like such a gentlemen.

But that's the point! What good is being able to hit someone in Kendo if you don't have good manners? How can you see an opening in Kendo if you can't see an adult standing at a door with her arms full?

You have to look at yourself under a microscope and look at your sensei and seniors with a telescope. You've got to see it all.

You must help your sensei before he even realizes that he needs help. You must foster a relationship in which your sensei feels comfortable correcting you. In these ways, you will progress in your training, both in Karate and daily life -- which in the end, are the same thing.


Charles C. Goodin