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Do You Understand? (Really?)

Today I went to lunch with my good friend and senior, Sensei Pat Nakata, who officially became a senior citizen (65 years old) last week. I hope that in 14 years, I will be training as dilligently as he does!

I took the lunch opportunity to ask Nakata Sensei to explain to me the subtleties of the the word "understand" in Japanese. Although I am half-Japanese and my mother was born and raised in Japan, I speak Japanese only well enough to mess it up! I eat Japanese (except natto), not speak it.

Nakata Sensei was kind enough to explain this to me.

If your Sensei teaches you something and asks you if you get it, you might say, "Yes, I understand."

In Japanese, there are different ways to express this. The two main words for "understand" are "wakarimasu" and "shirimasu."

I did not know this. I only heard the word "wakarimasu" when learning Japanese in elementary school (as part of a language program at Misawa Air Force Base) and thought it would be used whenever you wanted to say that you understood, comprehended, or got something.

But according to Nakata Sensei, "wakarimasu" and "shirimasu" have different connotations, which are very important for Karate students.

If your Sensei shows you something and asks if you understand, you would use "shirimasu" if you get what was taught -- that you have seen or heard what was taught. It is almost like saying, "yes, I received your instruction."

You would only use "wakarimasu" if you got what was taught and understood it experientially. That is like saying, "yes, I received your instruction, understood it, have grappled with it intellectually and experientially, and can say that I get it... and perhaps can do it."

See the difference? Do you understand?

Most of the time, we students should probably use "shirimasu" rather than "wakarimasu." I know that I certainly should.

Sometimes I will tell Nakata Sensei that I have heard or read what he has told me, but am still thinking about it and working on it. I "received it" but do not yet "get it." It is almost like saying, "yes, I heard you, and I intellectually understand the words that you used, but I do not yet get the whole concept and cannot apply it physically."

I have to admit that when my Sensei over the years have asked if everyone "gets it," I have often been the lone student who raised my hand and said, "No Sensei, I'm sorry but I do not."

The difference between "wakarimasu" and "shirimasu" are relevant in English. When your Sensei asks if you understand something, you have to be careful about your word choice. If you say "yes," he might think that you mean that you understand the subject experientially (which you probably don't).

Let me use an analogy. If a farmer gives you a tree seed it would be one thing to say, "I have received the seed." It would be quite another thing to say, "I received the tree seed, planted it in my yard, watered it and fed it for many years, and now can take a nap under its majestic branches and leaves on a hot summer day!"

Now let's apply this to Karate. Your Sensei shows you a koshi method. Your Sensei shows you how to osae (press) during a kata transition. Your Sensei shows you how to relax. Do you get it? Or have you observed and received the instruction and will work on it? Do you get the words, or the meaning? Do you get the words or can you do it?

Nakata Sensei told me today that sometimes when he is doing kata, he will realize something about a movement and say to himself, "Chibana Sensei, wakarimasu!" He now understands something experientially that his Sensei taught him over 40 years ago. Until then, he could have said "shirimasu" but not "wakarimasu."

Perhaps we could say that "shirimasu" indicates a work in progress while "wakarimasu" indicates a sense of completion.

For me, Karate continues to be a very enjoyable work on progress.

Do you understand? Really?


Charles C. Goodin