The #1 Way of Sounding Like a Total Amateur in Karate

Sometimes cultures clash in a more physical way than you wish for.

Like the other day when I was at the supermarket.

So there I was, strolling down the isle, searching for some high protein/low carb goodness (usually tuna), when a regular, totally ordinary, Japanese man quickly approaches from my right side.

My ninja sense immediately starts to tingle. I can sense that the dude wants to walk past me (I’m standing in the middle of the isle), to some products further away in the store. And there’s nothing strange with that, of course.

People walk past other people in supermarkets all the time, right?

So, since the isles were pretty narrow in this store, I back up a little – leaving him plenty of room to pass in front of me as I’m pretending to look interested in the canned tuna.

Big.

Frickin’.

Mistake.

You see, in Japan you never walk in front of other people. Like, say, if somebody is browsing books in a library, having a conversation with someone else, reading a sign, or basically doing anything which requires attention to the front, you never walk in front of that person. It’s highly disrespectful. So you walk behind them instead. Never in front.

Simple.

Except… I’m not Japanese.

“BOOM!”

The sound echoes in the supermarket as I totally unintentionally, yet surprisingly brutally, tackle the poor Japanese dude into the shelf behind me.

“Waah, sumimasen, gomen, daijoubu!?” I manage to blurt out before the now terrified Japanese man quickly puts his hand up (as in “don’t worry, I’m fine”), dusts his shoulders off, adjusts his Harry Potter glasses and just keeps on walking like nothing happened.

“Oops.”

Okay, no sweat. It was just an accident, could have happened to anybody. Lesson learned. I quickly decided that from here on I would always step forward when browsing stuff on the shelves, letting other people smoothly pass behind me.

So I keep on strolling down the isles, for about five minutes or so.

Still in the same store.

When I suddenly see him again.

The exact same poor Japanese business guy I viciously ass-tackled five minutes ago is in the same isle as I am – again! – coming straight towards me.

He pretends he doesn’t see me.

I pretend to look interested in some dried seaweed.

“Yes! This is my chance! I can now show him that I am actually NOT a gaijin ignoramus, and that I have learnt my lesson. As soon as he get nearer I step forward and let him slide behind me.” I think, as he steadily approaches me.

My plan was perfect.

He get’s closer.

Any second now.

A few more steps...

Just a little more…

“KA-BLAM!”

Full frontal NFL-style tackle.

Dried seaweed flying everywhere.

“Noooo, this can’t be happening again!” I almost scream, as I look into the terror-stricken eyes of the poor Japanese dude bending over in front of me, leaning on the shelf. “What have I done!?”

What happened was; as I stepped forward (to let the guy pass behind me) the Japanese man instead passes in front of me, thinking I was going to back up like last time.

The terror, the pure fear, in his eyes still haunts me to this day.

It was like his whole body was saying: “What bad have I done to deserve getting brutally tackled over and over again by this evil foreigner who stalks me in the grocery store!?”

I was so embarrased.

Needless to say, I got out of that supermarket quicker than you can say ass-tackle.

_____

So what can YOU learn from this story?

Well, being in a different country often shows you that small things we take for granted, and probably never think about (like letting people pass either in front or behind you) can be the exact opposite to what you’re used to. And a prime example of this is the change social media (facebook, youtube etc) has brought to the inter-cultural relationships between people (here’s the Karate connection).

I mean, both me and the poor Japanese dude learnt our lessons that day in the grocery store pretty quickly. How? We just had to look each other in the face!

But online you can’t do that.

Because there is no real ‘face’ to look at.

There is no real-time feedback.

So you don’t learn how stuff is done in the real world.

And that’s the reason to why we’re seeing these really messed up things, like people calling themselves “sensei Bob”, “shihan Joe”, “hanshi Ed” or “soke Billy” on various online communities and forums, without knowing that they’re practically ass-tackling the whole worldwide karate community in one sentence.

So that’s what this post is about.

You see, you never call yourself a “sensei” in real life.

No matter what grade, style, rank, title or lineage you boast, you simply never, ever, call yourself a sensei.

Never.

Like one of my friends here in Okinawa, a 6th dan and chief secretary of the Okinawan Prefectural Kobudo Federation, (who just discovered the internet by the way) told me last week with a shocked face:

“Jesse-san… I see on Facebook and Youtube that some foreigners call themselves sensei! This is very funny to Japanese people! [laughs with a painful look]”.

Now, don’t get him wrong (which I know some people will)

He’s not saying a Westerner can’t be a sensei. Oh no. On the contrary, he’s actually massively impressed by many of our advanced teaching methods and methodologies (which they can’t really duplicate themselves here in Okinawa because of their strict social settings and cultural context). That’s not at all what he’s saying.

What my friend is saying is this:

You never call yourself a sensei.

Because it’s not humble.

And if it’s one thing the Japanese people are masters at, it’s being super humble.

“The tallest rice plant hangs the lowest.”

– Japanese proverb

You never call yourself sensei because it’s not an objective title. It’s an honorary word, used by the people who regard you as someone who has come before (“sen”-“sei”, lit. “before”-“living”). Sensei, in the most basic sense of the word, is a term denoting respect for the sum of all experience gathered by an individual during his/her journey to a place you’re also headed. Except you haven’t come as far yet.

And thus, by using the word “sensei” about somebody, you acknowledge the hardships and struggles the person standing before you has gone through – knowing he/she can teach you a lot from his/her experience gained.

And this is not just for Karate people.

Don’t think we’re that special.

The same philosophy goes for everyone, from doctors to school teachers, because they’re all called sensei too.

So, with that being said, calling yourself “sensei” is like calling yourself “the king of Lilliput”, “the emperor of Narnia”, or “the ruler of [insert fictional kingdom here]” to the Japanese ear.

You don’t impress anybody.

In fact…

…you just look stupid.

“An empty vessel makes the most noise.”

– Chinese proverb (found in the Bubishi)

Let’s get this straight.

Sensei is not an objective word.

It’s not a factual statement.

It’s a subjective word, uttered by those who recognize your experience and (hopefully) respect you for it.

“Hanshi”, “shihan”, “renshi”, “soke”, “kyoshi” on the other hand… those are all facts. Titles, which you can print on your business card along with your rank if you really need to. But please, for Funakoshi’s sake, don’t use them with your name on facebook!

Why not?

Because if you ask me, the moment you decide to have “Shihan Bob” as your online user name is the moment you need to seriously reconsider if Karate really is the right thing for you to do, and what your goal with practising Karate really is.

But please, don’t take my word for it.

Read chapter three (“Harmony”) of The Karate Code, and have Nagamine Takayoshi sensei (10th dan, soke, Matsubayashi-ryu) tell you the exact same thing instead. Here’s the last sentence of the chapter for you:

“…you have to control what you are doing, or it will control you.”

Karate is for you, and you only.

Not for anyone else.

Unless the real reason you’re actually doing Karate is for somebody else – in which case I wish you a nice day, a happy life, and get out of my blog thankyouverymuch.

(Still here?)

Great.

So let’s finish this post.

Somtimes I think we all need to take a few steps back, re-focus, get a clear view and really think about what’s truly important to us in Karate. Do we walk the talk? Do we practise what we preach? Huh? Are we “sensei” for others or for ourselves?

Belts, ranks, titles, diplomas, lineages, names, certificates…

It’s simply not of interest.

Karate, on the other hand, is.

More importantly, shutting up and training, is.

And that’s why you need to stop calling yourself a sensei.

Like the old Okinawan proverb goes, your fist should remain hidden up your sleeve until somebody comes looking for it. Not be waved around like a friggin vuvzuela at a soccer game (I hate those things by the way).

But I digress.

At the end of the day, I guess this is just what happens when you dig out and remove an ancient martial art from its organic environment, planting it in a diametrically opposite cultural landscape for it to grow in.

The gardener gets a hell of a job.

28 Comments

  • Dojorat
    A good comparison would be the word `mister` in english. Nobody except the most eccentric weirdo would refer to himself as `mister` so-and-so. Maybe it is just an internet thing. I have never heard of anyone of any rank call themselves sensei, renshi, kyoshi etc in the real world out there. Then again most of the western karateka I know have regular exchanges with their okinawan or japanese counterparts. That probably makes the difference. People who show off ranks and titles and insist on calling themselves that , usually have little to no idea of where they originate and how they are used.
    • I have to say that I don't know anyone who calls themselves "sensei" in real life, but it does come up on the internet even from very good martial artists. Honestly, and maybe I'm being too lax on formality, I don't get particularly irritated by it. I'm not a sensei and don't intend to call myself one if a time ever comes where others call me that--I've heard this same thing a few times before (that you shouldn't call yourself "sensei")--but other people can do what they want. I think that a lot of people want to equate karate knowledge with knowledge of Japanese culture, and they just aren't the same, so we are expected to Westernize things to a degree, I think.
    • Low man on the totem pole
      The term "Mister" in english is a title of respect in the English culture. You call your school teacher "Mister (insert last name)" you don't call them by their first name and you especially never call them "Teacher" we refer to them as "Mister -----". I would NEVER let my students call me by my first name nor use Teacher. I always tell them to call me "mister" and my last name. It teaches the students to be respectful to not only me but to other adults as well (something that is sorely lacking in our culture anymore). In fact if they do not call me by that I tell them to call me "Sir" another traditional English form of respect. It has nothing to do with ego, but everything with teaching the children to be respectful and curtious, something that will serve them very well in life.
  • Joe
    On the other hand dojo rat, there are "big senseis" who have lived in Japan who do call themselves kyoshi, sensei and hanshi.Also, school teachers always tell the kids "My Name Is Mr. xxxxxx"
  • Very interesting.Thank god I prefer to label myself an instructor rather than a sensei. Partly wouldn't because I feel to young for that. Students do call me sensei, but luckily I have never demanded it.I seriously thought that 'sensei' is simply used for 'teacher' in Japan. Although I do recall and wonder why do they also call 'doctors' as sensei - which is something I noticed only through anime.Another interesting, informative and educating post!
  • Joey
    I know some ladies among the South African Afrikaner community who insist on being called by their husband's titles... Mrs Professor so and so and Mrs Admiral so and so....I kid you not, and heaven help you if you do not address them in that manner....What a crock! What is it with Western folk who demand and insist on titular address?? I mean we all walk around with 2 pounds of hot poop you know....Just saying!
    • Boban Alempijevic
      hehehehe :D
  • Sensei
    In America and USA most Japanese terms are reinterpreted in budo ANYWAY so... might as well mess up the term sensei too :)
    • Fleur
      Funny!
  • Fleur
    Ps... Edit. Soke Nagamine is 10th dan.
    • Oops! Edited. Thanks!
  • Adalbert
    “On no occasion call yourself a philosopher, and do not, for the most part, talk among laymen about your philosophic principles, but do what follows from your principles. For example, at a banquet do not say how people ought to eat, but eat as a man ought. For remember how Socrates had so completely eliminated the thought of ostentation, that people came to him when they wanted him to introduce them to philosophers, and he used to bring them along. So well did he submit to being overlooked. And if talk about some philosophic principle arises among laymen, keep silence for the most part, for there is great danger that you will spew up immediately what you have not digested. So when a man tells you that you know nothing, and you, like Socrates, are not hurt, then rest assured that you are making a beginning with the business you have undertaken. For sheep, too, do not bring their fodder to the shepherds and show how much they have eaten, but they digest their food within them, and on the outside produce wool and milk. And so do you, therefore, make no display to the laymen of your philosophical principles, but let them see the results which come from these principles when digested.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 46, transl. by W. A. Oldfather)
    • Masterfully chosen quote. Enchiridion is the code I live by, right next to As a Man Thinketh.
  • rijad
    hallo i may name rijad ajeti of serbia club karate "Presheva Lions " e children karate 50 i have email adres of kurse karate end serbia city presevo
  • Mike Salvio
    You should read Gichin Funakoshi's book Karate-Do, My Way of Life. There are many explaiinations of just this type of behavior. I was fortunate I suppose because all of this was taught to me first thing when I started Chito-Ryu karate in 1975. I always walk in back of people, it's simple respect. And I have never referred to myself as sensi. That is always strickly up to someone else to do. What is really odd is the folks that call themselve master. In Chito-Ryu a master is someone who has learner all he can and cannot learn anymore. In essence, when you are dead you become master for you have learned all you can.
  • Andrey.
    2011-7,15. 11 33 PM . Tampa FL.Very Interesting indeed !!!.Here in America 100 years agothere were no Bonsai tree.They came from Japan over the years.here in little tokyo in L.A. NowWe have plenty ..So please let me ask you.Do those Bonsai Trees are ;Japanese or Americain ???Zen also was modify from india to Chinato Korea to Japan !!The same with any art including Karate ormartial arts ...We are more Now an International world.Thank You.Andrey. from Tampa BAY. fL.
  • Raddon
    On the other hand, in my experience, when in the dojo, the instructor will expect the members of the class to refer to him/her as sensei- not out of any perceived sense of importance, but simply as a way of keeping order in a class that invariably has many children in it (who given half a chance would just run around all lesson). Its simply a way of saying "I'm the teacher, you're the student- now lets get on with improving your karate". I would hazard a guess that this approach is maybe not a necessary in Japan where respect for teachers/elders is taken much more seriously. I for one would feel very strange being called 'sensei' in any context other than me being the class' instructor- I've been in classes where someone with the same belt as me or lower is teaching, and I will always refer to them as sensei whilst refusing to be called such myself. Different cultures may adopt different attitudes, but I truely think that respect and humility transcend such barriers and can be found wherever you go- just maybe in a different form.
  • Barbara Hesselschwerdt
    Instructors in our club have to be called sensei within the classes in which they teach. Most of us do not want to be called sensei outside of the dojo. One instructor who teaches the instructor group demands to be called sensei in and out of the dojo. The same man demands respect. It is interesting to note that most of the higher grades do not call him sensei outside of the dojo and find it very difficult to show him respect. His actions definitely do not earn him respect. It would seem that if you have to demand respect you obviously have not earned it.I do agree with Raddon that asking students to call you sensei in class in this country is done to maintain order because respect and manners are sadly lacking in our society.
  • T
    Brilliant!
  • Theodore
    This last section was really insightful Jesse. There are a few people who call me Sensei in class and at least one in conversation and it feels odd, but I took it to be a compliment. When writing online I always feel a little uncertain on using my first name or "sensei" like everyone calls me - this definitely made up my mind. Thanks a ton for your great insight.
  • Brian
    I recently found a guy in our area that only calls himself "Sensei". Nothing else. No one knows what his real name is. He introduces himself that way and struts around a room like a freakin rooster. We all just roll our eyes and laugh at him.
  • My favorite post - well said Jesse.I would go further: I know Westerners who insist on being called "Doctor" or "Reverend" etc. To me, this is just as bad, even though we aren't Japanese.I get why others might want to call you by a title; I just don't get why you'd ever want to call yourself by a title.
  • Great presentation. Thanks for sharing this idea interesting blog, Please continue this great work.Die Difficult is as advanced, stone solid and souped up as an action movie can be.really help me lot in that. Thanks for publishing :)Rusty Solomon
  • Andreas
    Minatogawa desu, hajime mashite.
  • Alex
    This article should be compulsory reading for all 'instructors'. The term Sensei should not be demanded from all but should be given as a sign of respect & respect needs to be earned.Great article Jesse
  • It's a bit like when someone say "Hello Mr Davies"... I always look behind me for my dad. When someone says "Hello Sensei" I always assume one of the people I refer to as Sensei (y'know, the REAL Sensei) has just walked in :-)
  • maja
    the question then is, what do you do the other way when two coltures meet? how do you know when it's apropriate to address someone as sensei in a culture that doesn't really do titles? like, here in norway my experience is that most norwegians would be a bit hurt if you tried to address them using a title and/or their last name instead of their first name. not actually expecting someone to have the answer to what they expect in my specific dojo here in norway (duh), really just agreeing that it can be extremely confusing when two very different cultures meet and mix :p

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