Tou'on-ryu, Sai, Kobudo, Hillcrest community centre
Kanzaki Shigekazu sensei practicing with Sai

I was reading an article titled ‘Japan’s honorific language about more than manners‘ that discussed the physicist Richard Feynman’s frustration with learning Japanese while he was working in Kyoto.

Feynman’s frustration essentially boiled down to what he perceived as redundancy in the language. That is having more than one way to express an action or idea. Both the Wiki article and the article talk about  how annoyed Feynman became when his teacher asked him to translate the seemingly simple phrases, “Would you look at my garden?” in reference to his own garden, and “Can I see your garden?” to ask to see a Zen Temple garden. Both seemingly innocuous phrases but how they are said are quite different as the article goes into detail explaining. In a nut-shell, the first phrase uses humble language, and the second phrase uses respectful language.

So, why do I bring this up? In my case, my Karate and Kobudo teachers always used respectful language when teaching me. When they asked me to do a kata or technique they would say, “yatte goran (やってごらん)”. Now you might be thinking that because they’re my teachers, older and more experienced than me, why would they use respectful language? They could have easily said,  something more neutral like “yatte kudasai (やってください)”, or just plain “yatte” (やって) but they didn’t.

My teacher’s used respectful language because they were gentlemen. They were ‘kunshi’ (君子). They tried to express courtesy, propriety and respect not only in the dojo, but in their daily lives. They were never short-tempered or rude to students, despite our lack of skill. Their Karate and Kobudo were not something that they left at the door of the dojo after teaching.

As Shito-ryu founder Mabuni Kenwa explained, ‘Kunshi’ refers to becoming a well rounded, respectful individual. A person who is able to exercise good manners in all situations with self-discipline and respect, who is able to assume accountability for his actions, and is able to maintain his integrity. It was something that my teachers strive towards constantly. No, they were not perfect men, but they always made an effort.

In comparison, what I see today is a lot of self-serving, pernicious behavior among teachers of Karate and Kobudo amplified by the internet; in particular social media. There’s nothing wrong with getting your message out to people, but when that message is over-shadowed by ego then you need to take a step back. You need to (re)think what it means to be a gentlemen Karateka.