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Atama Wo Sageru

This is my first post for 2011, and I think that this subject is a good theme for the year.

The other day I went to lunch with three of my senior Karate friends, Sensei James Miyaji, Sensei Water Nishioka, and Sensei Pat Nakata. We (and others) often go to lunch and this is one of the secrets of how I learn about Karate -- by talking to my seniors at lunch.

On that day, the subject turned to how a senior Karate instructor should be and one of the seniors said "Atama Wo Sageru" which translates as "To bow (or lower) your head." This saying is accompanied by the illustration of rice: when the rice is ripe and mature it bows (because the grains of rice become heavy). In the same way, when a Karate instructor becomes mature, he too will bow. The weight of his skill and experience will make him more courteous and respectful.

All three instructors agreed about the importance of this saying, "Atama Wo Sageru." To act in such a manner is a sign of a mature Karate instructor -- to act in an arrogant and conceited way is just the opposite.

For those of us living in the Western world, it seems that the Japanese bow all the time -- and to some extent this is true. Bowing is an important part of the courtesy system in Japan. But obviously, there is a big difference between merely bowing and showing respect. In fact, it is possible for a person to bow in an arrogant way.

"Atama Wo Sageru" does not simply mean that a Karate student or instructor should bow. Anyone can bow. By itself, a bow does not mean anything.

The point of the saying is not that one bows to show respect in a formal sense. Instead, one bows as a result of the weight of his training, accomplishments, and life experience. Said another way, the more you accomplish, the more humble you should become.

There is a saying in Japan. If the sun shines on your face and no shadows are cast, then you are arrogant (because you are facing up). But when there are shadows on your face it shows that you are humble (because you are facing down).

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that people should be submissive or walk around with their face down. I am just saying that sincere humility is the mark of an accomplished Karate person.

Over the years, I have been to many lunches and dinners with many Karate instructors. I can't tell you how many... plenty. I have never heard any instructors discussing their rank, titles, or any honors. If one of them has recently been honored, he never brings it up himself and responds to comments generally with a sense of embarrassment.

The seniors don't talk about themselves and their accomplishments, instead they concentrate on how they can build up and support their students.

Something I have observed in Karate is this: some people who know very little act like they know a lot, but many people who know a lot act like they know very little. I should clarify this second part of this observation. When someone knows a lot, this means that they appreciate not only what they know but what they do not not.

I took a test in law school. When I came out, some of the other students were talking about how easy the test was. I was surprised. On the surface, the test was easy, but actually there were layers to the questions, some of which were quite complex. The test actually was not easy at all.

The test of Karate is actually very complex with many layers. An advanced Karate instructor will be aware of this. Even if he knows a lot, he will realize that there is much more to learn.

And aside from self defense, there is the issue of character. Long after a Karate instructor is capable at self defense, he will continue to work on his character -- this is unending.

Through Karate training we are not climbing higher, we are digging deeper.

"Atama Wo Sageru" -- "To bow (or lower) your head."

I do not know who said this, but there is also a saying that "A man is never taller than when he bends down to help a child." How true.

I have spent the holidays with my wife, mother, children, granddaughter, and extended family. As a grandfather, I can relate to "Atama Wo Sageru." This does not mean that we should not stand tall and be proud. We should. But the weight of our experiences and accomplishments should make us more humble too.

Have a great 2011!

And I want to thank all the readers of this blog from all around the world who have sent words of encouragement. We are all brothers and sisters in Karate training. Let us all work hard and improve this year!


Charles C. Goodin