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Friend -- Qualification

As you may know, I have many "friends" who practice Karate. This is natural, since Karate is a big part of my life.

However, there is a problem with the word "friend." In English, at least to me, the word friend connotes a sense of equality. A friend is someone on my level.

But in Karate, we are always aware of our relative positions. For example, someone who joined the dojo before me is and will always be my senior. There is no question about this. I would not address him as "sempai" but I would be aware that he is my sempai. My "Sensei" is certainly my senior and I will always act with that in mind.

So can my sempai or sensei be my friend? The Japanese terms convey an element of relative position while the term friend conveys equality.

That is why I usually describe Sensei Pat Nakata as "my friend and mentor" or "my friend and senior." If I simply referred to him as "my friend," it would seem that I did not know my place. I am distinctly aware that he is my senior.

My own Sensei are Sensei Katsuhiko Shinzato and Sensei Rodney Shimabukuro. I would have a difficult time calling them my "friends," because I respect them as my Sensei. I think of them more as my uncles. I guess that an uncle could be a friend, but again, this would be a little awkward.

My wife is Filipino (Tagalog). In her culture, you do not address your older brother or older sister by their first name. You call your older brother "kuya" and your older sister "ate." This is a sign of respect. My own children do this, and they are only 3/8th Filipino. If one of my younger children were to address their older brother by his first name, this would be a cause for concern in our family.

In my wife's community, we have many aunts and uncles, who might not be related to us by blood. But we call them Auntie or Uncle. Again, this is a sign of respect.

In Karate, how you address your seniors will depend on the form of courtesy practiced in your dojo. I generally find that Japanese dojo are more strict in this regard than Okinawan dojo, but it depends. It seems to me that Japanese dojo put more emphasis on formalities, while Okinawan dojo place more emphasis on relationships.

So the use of the word "friend" when it comes to Karate can present some problems, or at least some issues of which we should be mindful.

A student should always know his place and a sensei should never abuse his position.


Charles C. Goodin