Japanophiles, Titles of Rank, and The Business of Martial Arts
Japanophile – An interest in, or love of, Japan and all things Japanese.
I had run into Jerry at the gym I worked out at, and found we both had a background in Japanese martial arts. Jerry had been practicing JKA karate since the 60’s, and in a colorful recollection claimed he had once been on the losing end of a sparring match with karate legend Frank Smith.
I believed him, although I also believed he was a martial artist of exceptional skill. I watched him stretch and practice slow kicks between sets (a practice that I found to be a bit egotistical, in the middle of a gym, but then who was I to judge) and had personally witnessed his lightning fast oi-tsuki and whip-crack sharp yoko geri keage.
The guy was good.
So, I invited Jerry to teach a guest class at my school. At the time, I was teaching mostly Korean Moo Duk Kwan, and I thought it’d be interesting for the students to be exposed to the JKA style of karate.
“Just one thing,” Jerry cautioned me, “I speak a bit differently when I teach. It’s a habit I picked up from my Japanese sensei.”
No big deal, I thought. The students can handle a little Japanese terminology. I’ll just explain some of the terms for common techniques, and they’ll be fine.
“No problem – I’ll see you Thursday,” I replied.
Jerry Teaches “Crass”
So, Thursday rolls around, and Jerry shows up in his starched white 14 oz. duck cotton canvas gi – probably a Tokaido, standard issue for most traditional Japanese stylists, I thought to myself. This should be a good experience for the students, to see some traditional Japanese karate.
I introduced Jerry to the class, and went off to the side to speak with some people who had walked in to inquire about lessons.
“Crass… Rine up!”
My head snapped around as I did a double-take on Jerry. What the heck was that?
I then watched in horror as Jerry proceeded to teach an excellent hour-long class on the finer points of kihon to my advanced students… in pidgin English.
Did I happen to mention that Jerry was a white boy?
As I’d expect, to most of you this seems really weird… and I was more than a little freaked out about it, too.
But, it’s just a single small example of the rampant weirdness that ensues when you mix martial arts and Japanophilia (or any type of Asiaphilia – referencing the predilection for all things Asian, not white misogyny toward Asian women, of course).
And, while some students are drawn to this sort of behavior (mostly prepubescent and teenage boys, reminiscent of how Mark Salzman once wrote that as a kid he routinely wore a Kwai Chang Caine bald skull cap and practiced kung fu in a graveyard at night) most normal, well-adjusted folks are quite turned off by it.
But, the questions remains… how can we at once give respect to the cultures where the martial arts we practice once originated, while at the same time maintaining a sense of dignity and normalcy in our schools?
Case in Point: Titles of Rank
Okay, I’ll admit it – I hate using the term “master“. And, to me, I find calling someone “grand master” usually leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Now, I’ll use the term “master instructor” or even “professor” all day long, because I see it as being similar to saying someone has earned a masters degree, or is a master electrician – it denotes a level of skill and knowledge, nothing more.
But, I’m not anyone’s “master”, and I’ll not have anyone lord their “mastery” over me or my students.
I’m an American, for goodness sakes. And, I only have one Master, and He’s a Jewish carpenter from Galilee. So, the whole “master-disciple” thing kind of sticks in my craw.
As does the use of certain other terms of rank and title, which I won’t mention here for risk of unintentionally insulting someone.
However, suffice it to say that if I use the term “master” or “grand master” in reference to you, I like you and I’m doing it out of respect for your customs and beliefs.
But I still think it’s a bit much.
You see, the reason is that the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean terms for persons of high rank don’t really equate to calling someone “master”.
Now, you can study the etymology of Asian martial arts titles of rank on your own… I just wanted to point out that we Westerners often take things for granted as being fixtures of historical authenticity, when often they are nothing more than fabrications derived from pop culture influences and popular media.
How Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, and David Carradine Ruined Martial Arts…
Now, I wasn’t around back then, but I’d hazard to say that not many martial arts students here in the United States were calling their instructors “master” before the television series Kung Fu started airing.
And, the heinous misuse of the term sensei probably started about the time that The Karate Kid hit the theaters and entered the public lexicon of all things pseudo-Asian in America.
Not that I dislike the Karate Kid movies (well, except those last two) or the original Kung Fu series (but they should have let Bruce Lee star in it – after all, he was Asian).
It’s just that I believe these sort of iconic cultural influences can’t but have had some role in creating certain archetypes of martial culture – archetypes that many American martial artists blindly accept as being accurate and authentic representations of the Japanese and Chinese martial heritage from whence they derive.
And the thing is, when we (intentionally or unintentionally) conform to those false archetypes, it just looks plain goofy to people who don’t do martial arts.
My Wife, Trekkies, Ren-Fest, and Bruising My Ego
About 6 years into our marriage or so (I”m guesstimating here), my wife dropped a bomb on me.
“You know, when we first met I thought all that martial arts stuff was just plain silly. Sort of like those Trekkie people, or the people who dress up and sport crazy accents when they go to the Renaissance Festivals – all that jumping around in funny clothes and using foreign words seemed like the same thing to me.”
Blasphemer! Sacrilege! Forty push-ups, now!
All this and more ran through my mind as I mentally digested what she was telling me.
And then, it hit me: She was an outsider looking in. Someone with a “normal” perspective on things, so to speak. And, if she thought that about our school, what must other people think when they’re exposed to the martial arts for the first time?
So, I continued to question her about her first impressions of the martial arts, and this in turn led to a serious examination of certain practices I had just blindly adopted over the years.
I soon started using less and less foreign terminology in class and a lot more English, among other things. And, I started teaching class with an attitude and mannerisms that were more in line with my Western upbringing.
The end result – I’m a lot more comfortable with the way I do things now than I ever was when I was a blatant Asiaphile.
And, I’d have to say that my students are, as well.
Questions? Comments? Completely disagree? Let the world know – post your comments below:
This last bit in your article really hit me good. I don’t have to feel I am doing a dis service to my martial art by Americanizing the terminology. We do teach a bit of it but as I say in class or to the parents it is more nostalgia than anything else.
Glad to know there are others out there that feel as I do.
Nice article Mike – so true and yet so comical.
It reminds me of a traditional karate tournament I took my kids to last year. Of course since the tournaments I send my students to follow the WKF rules (some more than others), all the verbal commands are in Japanese – as it’s the agreed standard for WKF.
My students are familiar with Japanese karate terminology, and those who compete also become familiar with the referee’s commands – like “Aka, chudan zuki. Ippon!” and “No kachi!”, etc. However some of the less frequently used terms like “shikaku!” , “ai-uchi!” are something that my kids hear every now and again, but really don’t commit to memory.
Anyhow, during this tournament one of my 5 year old kids was having trouble with his mouth guard. Basically it was too big and making him gag. Each time a point was scored, he came back to the line and would briefly remove his mouth guard to catch his breath and stop himself from vomiting over the tatami. As soon as the referee announced in Japanese who had scored, he’d scowl at him and then yell again in Japanese, motioning him to keep his mouth guard in.
You could see the fear in my student’s eyes. He was confused, on the verge of tears, and the referee relished unleashing his power upon him.
The fight continued and my student was overwhelmed by it all with the crazy Japanophile referee screaming at him. He’d yell at him first in Japanese, and if he didn’t understand, he’d yell louder with more ferocity. When that didn’t work, he’d scowl and then finally (and grudgingly) scream at him in English until he did what he was told, while the whole time maintaining a very upright posture pointing at him with the finger of death.
My take on it was that he was so entrenched in his job as a referee and so determined to speak Japanese the entire time (even though he was American), he’d forgotten how to show any empathy or help a troubled competitor. I don’t believe for a minute that 99% of Japanese people would have acted like this either – so I’m not sure who he was modeling.
It’s funny how some Westerners’ impression of other cultures completely (and often incorrectly) transforms them into something that most Japanese would also find peculiar.
I’m with you 100%, Mike. I’ve just recently begain to use the words “Attention” and “Bow” instead of the badly mis-pronounced Korean equivalents that I’ve heard in just about every class since I started training.
However… I do count push-ups in foreign languages just for fun. (Pushups are good – I can’t count that high in German or French!) And, Korean sometimes makes the list!
Master? Oh yes, 30 plus years involved in Martial Arts have earned it. Not an egotistical thing, a repect thing. Sir is fine also. The important thing to know here is that your students know how much you care about them, not how much you care about what you have accomplished.
Well, the subject got changed before the story was finished. I was being very amused by Jerry teaching crass. But his friend never finished the story. What happened at the end… what kind of comments did he get from the students. I can use my imagination and figure out how it ended but an ending to the story would have been nice.
As you might imagine, he never got invited back to the school to teach again. But, my students were too polite to say anything about it until I brought it up. Good group of students, that class. We discussed it and had a good laugh. Still, I have to say that guy was a darned fine karateka.
I agree with Mr. Massey’s point of view but his observations are only the tip of the iceberg. What he is describing is has deep implications.
Is it plausible to think Americans will continue to perpetuate another country\’s traditions? As a martial art is assimilated it is invariability changed to fit the culture. The founder of Shotokan describes in his book Karate-do how he changed the characters used in the word Karate so it no longer reflected its Chinese heritage.
Many first generation martial artists were migrants from other countries and their teaching practices reflected this. Second generation martial artists perpetuated what they were taught believing it to be the best way to teach their art. The third generation martial artist is often so far removed from the source of the formalities and rituals that their underlying meaning may very well be lost.
The affect is similar to what happens when playing the game called telephone. The game is played by whispering a word or phrase into the ear of the person next to you and then that person does the same to the person next to him. With every recitation distortion grows until what is being passed on has no resemblance to what was originally said. Much in the same way many martial arts traditions lose their relevance or become distorted over time.
I do believe formalities and rituals have a place in martial art instruction as a teaching tool and as a way to maintain a healthy perspective in our students but as martial artists we have to make some very difficult decisions as to which traditions to keep and which ones to discard. Do we continue to use a foreign language, belts systems, uniforms, obscure titles, bowing and the like? Or do we toss all that out the window and start over?
I like using a belt system as a way to set short term goals on the way to longer term goals but how many belts (or degrees) do we really need in a system to accomplish this? I never liked teaching in a different language because I am painfully Caucasian and have no way of knowing if I am saying the words right but what do we do about the words that have no translations?
What about relevance? Does the ritual/formality produce the desired results and serve the purpose it was intended? Does it help or hinder the system? Can the same thing be accomplished in other ways? Unfortunately I have more questions than answers. Sorry.
There is great deal of growth and innovation going on in the martial arts right now and as a result old established beliefs are being questioned and many of the practices we held to be true are crumbling under the scrutiny. This is where the laws of evolution take over and those practices that produce the desired results get perpetuated and those that don’t die off.
Hope to see you on the other side.
Hi, yes I understand that You, english native people are confused when forced to use non english language. On the other side ,are we not using english terms in most anglo saxon sports like soccer or basketball. Wouldnt it be silly if everybody translate offside to local language? Or is brasilian coach less good if he use english instead of local?From my point of wiew round house kick is much more silly than mawashi geri. This discussion is not correct.
When One go to dojo (another silly word) and wear gi, he can literraly transform himself in another role,similar as actor is doing when wearing dress and going to stage. And thisis the main force that make MA antistress therapy. 90 minuts (or more) You are in another space not thinking about daily routine and problems.Than You undress Your gi and go to money world.
Please let it be.If coach (sensei) is good and training is good,never mind about the words.If oppositte, no words can make it good.
Great article. I think we need to clarify what it is we are teaching: Traditional and sport martial instruction. Yes there are elements of culture and tradition within each particular style or system and these should be taught as perhaps supplementary information along side the training: if you are not chinese, koreanor japanese etc. –give it up! there is no possible way to convert your western american world view to an eastern one just because you studied a martial art or know how to name the particular moves in their original language. My wife is vietnamese. I have been to vietnam, studied vietnamese, eat vietnamese food and study vietnamese culture–I am still not vietnamese.
I am an instructor as well-not a master. My belt it holds up my pants woo hoo. I agree with mike–language can be very confusing. I tell my students when they ask “what is the name of that move (now yes i could tell them the chinese name or shaolin description) I tell them its called I am going to hit you and knock you down!!
Miroslav, I really don’t have issue with someone using foreign terms if they so choose. However, I think that terminology can sometimes create a barrier between people who will and people who won’t…
One of the things my wife and I have discussed frequently is the use of particular terminology and language in the traditional Protestant evangelical church. I’ve never felt comfortable in those churches, particularly because I’m not what you would call a “joiner”, but also because I see their culture and language as exclusionary.
I know I’m getting off topic a bit here, but only to make a point. Traditional churches have criticized the emergent church movement in recent years for abandoning “tradition” (much of which is not based in Scripture, but I digress), but it’s in fact due to the removal of many onerous and off-putting traditions in worship that emergent churches are seeing record numbers of people joining and regularly attending their services.
My point in this article was that more people might be willing to try martial arts if it were made to seem a little less weird to them.
Here’s a question for you… do you think a Japanese person speaks English when they take rock, country, or blues guitar lessons in Tokyo? Probably not…
I suggest that anyone who wants to know where certain martial arts traditions started should read some of the articles at http://www.24fightingchickens.com/articles/
Hi Mike, I have an idea where you are trying to go with this,but you appear to have gotten lost, we all use foreign terms for everyday things Mike, or should I call you Guru Mike, as your own web site calls you, [Guru is an Indian word,]mainly to avoid having to give lengthy explanations for what are basically simple moves or things, I teach Wing Chun, would my students find it easier for me to talk about the Wing Arm instead of the Bong Sau, or the Smothering Hand instead of the Fook Sao. I happen to agree with simplifying the nomenclature, and at one time I actively attempted it, but after over 25 years teaching I am back to calling Bong Sao just Bong Sau and the students have less difficulty attaching new movements to new names. To change the name simply because it is a foreign language that you may or may not understand,to be happy to use one of your terms like professor but not Sensei or Sifu smells a bit of a dented Ego, especially when you think that professor is a Latin[old Italian] not English word anyway, as for feeling sick to address someone as Master or Grand Master due to your opinion of your own social standing again is a little bit left field, at my High School all the teachers where called Masters and the principle was the Head Master, not such a big leap to Grand Master. My opinion of myself is based on my life experiences and cannot be diminished by someone giving them selves a title that they may or may not deserve. My own Master and my own Grand Master are men of impeccable quality and immense martial skill, and even though they surpass me in everything I do I do not feel less of a man by happily calling them Sifu or Sigung. And because they are both from Hong Kong they know what the term really means. You finish by mentioning the scriptures, I seem to remember something about not trying to remove the splinter from your Brothers eye until you have taken the plank from your own.
Cannot agree — staying with the original Japanese Terminology adds depth of culture and meaning to Karate.
I teach Traditional Japanese Terminology to my Australian class of mixed races and heritage and it has not made them any less Australian or altered their original background.
If you become a Doctor, Dentist, Electrician, Plumber, Motor Mechanic etc you will need to learn new terminology specific to that Profession.
The Profession of Martial Arts needs to be no different as it should require just as much knowledge and skills as the Professions listed above.
There should be no need for the Martial Artist to dilute for those too lazy to learn.
Domo Arigato Mike-San
I thought this was a fun and interesting article. I do differ with Mike when it comes to being called Master in my school.
It isn’t a pride thing or ego thing for me. What I have found in my kids classes is that parents are not teaching or enforcing good common sense and healthy respect for others.
Parents expect me to work ‘miracles’ in the classroom to transform a spoiled brat into some super A++ prodigy. In truth a child can learn if put in the proper environment.
So in my school, I require students to address me as Master because want to use this term as a term of authority. Students will know right off the difference in rank and respect the authority that I have.
By enforcing the title, it established a disciplined response in how to address me as their instructor. I then can use it as a carry over discussion on how to address other teachers and parents in their life. If I can teach them to call me master, I can get them to say
‘Yes Sir’ and ‘Yes Mam’ at home.
Yay! It appears I’ve angered the natives by threatening yet another sacred cow!
“You finish by mentioning the scriptures, I seem to remember something about not trying to remove the splinter from your Brothers eye until you have taken the plank from your own.”
Derek, nice ad hominem response. Those who read my newsletter know I sign almost EVERYTHING with “Mike Massie, Martial Arts Business ANTI-Guru”… “anti” meaning “one that is opposed”.
I see where you’re coming from. I do remember using a lot of Latin and Greek terminology in A&P. Good point, well-stated.
I like your article. I may not totally agree with it but I do appreciate the thought and sentiment..
As someone who lives and trains (and teaches) in Tokyo I would like to add that some places do actually use the English or French or Spanish words when they study something from that culture. So, it isn’t just limited to Trekkies or crazy pajama-wearing martial artists.
And being here, I meet people from all over the world who want to train and even if they are Swedish, Italian, German, Thai, whatever, we can train together because we all use the Japanese terminology. Much like the WKF tournaments. The Japanese language becomes the standard.
However, many people take it too far. With a tiny bit of knowledge they start to take it beyond any level of normalcy. Like your friend in the article or the referee at the tourney. But, I think those people would vent their eccentricity in some form or another anyways…
I found the first part of the article regarding Jerry very funny. My wife is Chinese and we got a good laugh. Someone once told me that I should teach my class in Korean as a joke and get a laugh from my students. One, by me attempting to sound Korean I would be the one that sounds like a fool and two, I thought that would be truly disrespectful to Koreans.
I do remember a Korean female student snickering when the class was counting in Korean and mis-pronouncing the words.
The second part of the article I found as an interesting discussion. My students love to count in Korean and they count loud. It shows good motivation. We do not say our kicks and punches in Korean, but I try to keep some of the traditions of Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido otherwise I’m just teaching American-Do. Although I believe in many of the traditions of my arts I also believe we must empty our cup (open our mind) and allow new techniques into our systems. Grappling is very popular these days and from a self-defense perspective it is good to know techniques from the ground. Your point is very well taken as always.
I am protective of my students and would hesitate to ask someone I did not know to teach a class. It is admirable that you give the guest credit for being a good martial artist.
As for English versus foreign words-I have resorted to introducing myself as Mr. Larry rather than Sensei. I find it is less intimidating and easier to say.
One of my instructors says, “I need the title to have credibility with the college age students.” I suspect my salt and pepper hair gives me that credibility.
I have no problem with other languages except that some people confuse the other languages with religion. I find it is easier to use English. Then yet again, I have heard that if the English Language means anything it means a conglomeration of misunderstanding.
By the way-I know some of those terms that you say may offend someone:)
I guess we will all have to just follow our voice.
“I guess we will all have to just follow our voice.”
Excellent Mr. Bullard! Sage advice, what I’ve been telling people to do for years. :)
Good points, Brent… thanks for chiming in!
side question Mr. Massie;
i have instructor friends who are somewhat ‘offended’ that i am trying to earn money with my tkd instruction as opposed to an altruistic or ‘ministry’ approach. when i discuss the point (i fix phones for money – would rather teach tkd for money), they walk away with the idea that im ‘selling out’ by my capitalistic approach or by not making memory verses part of the cirriculum. wasnt sure if you had run into such or how you might deal with it. thanks!
Brian, I talk about this at length in http://www.small-dojo-big-profits.com …
Your students don’t go to their jobs and work for free, why should you?
I’ll write an article on this subject next week, but my short answer is that you deserve to be fairly compensated for your efforts.
Tell your buddies to walk into Gold’s Gym or Bally’s and ask for some free personal training, then see how far they get. :)
Lee, good comments… and I’m glad to know your wife thought it was funny, too.
My only comment in reply would be to point out that when Chinese kung fu was brought to Okinawa, they adapted it to their culture… it became “Okinawa-Te”.
When Funakoshi took Okinawan Te to Japan, it was adapted to suit the Japanese. It became “Karate-Do”.
When the Japanese took (well, really more like forced) their martial arts on Koreans, as soon as the occupation was over they adapted it to their culture and made it their own. It became Tae Kwon Do.
So, are we Americans to be considered blasphemers because we’ve taken their martial arts and in turn done with them what they did in the first place… that is, to adapt them to suit our culture?
I think not.
However, it’s up to each individual instructor to decide how far he or she wants to take it.
Great discussion, everyone! Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts.
Okay, I heard some really great arguments from all sides on these topics…
Here’s what I got out of it:
1. I respect that some people feel they’ve earned certain titles of respect, and I’ve decided that I’ll loosen up on using them, when and where warranted.
2. Some of you really like to speak in foreign languages. I admit, sometimes it’s a lot easier saying something in another language instead of making up terms in English (especially in Filipino MA, where it helps to have a particular name for certain moves).
3. I still refuse to speak in pidgin English when teaching class. (And, I am NOT making fun of Asians who speak with an accent, for the record. I barely speak two languages, and the second poorly at that. I’m sure my accent in Spanish is twice as bad as someone speaking English as a second language….)
Good discussion, all. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!
Yep, this hit a button,whoops pushed a button, who cares! I have been practicing a Chinese art for a long time and do not know one name of any technique except the horse stances. Now sometimes I think it would be easier if the teacher could call out “do moon rising over water technique” and everyone responded with the right tech. But, in my art the master who brought the art here nobody could undestand his English and Chinese didn’t make much since to a bunch of guys trying to learn to kick… Anyway, my point is we still have learned a great art and practice everyday eventhough we have no idea the names of “thousands” of techniques. Doesn’t matter when you are gouging the eye out of a bad guy breaking into your house while your wife and children sleep!
Great article. I use the fact that I don’t require learning a language other than english in class. I do not require a uniform and only display the American Flag part of my marketing.These things resonate with adults.
I get a very different take from children. They want uniforms, japanese, and all the mumbo-jumbo they see on television
I agree with some of what you are saying about the titles and ranks and the use of foreign lanquage in class. I have been training in Traditional Okinawan Karate and Jujutsu for 30 years and owned my own school for 22 years. I have earned several titles from international Japanese/Okinawan organizations, however, I just don’t require or expect the use of them. They are on a certificate, I just don’t use them. In class, my students do address me as “Sensei” while at class, I think it helps with the structure of the class. However, when away from class, I expect them to use my first name (especially the Black Belts who have all become my friends).
As far as using foreign lanquage in class. I have been learning the lanquage of Japanese for my own personal enjoyment (and to make travel to Okinawa and Japan a little less stressful). I use English in class because obviously that is our native lanquage. However, I do occasionally use Japanese (sometimes Uchinaguchi – Okinawan dialect) in class to describe techniques, greetings, stances, etc. I do this so they become aware of the name if they are interested. There is no requirement to learn Japanese terminology. I do not feel there is anything wrong with paying homeage and preserving our past while focusing on our future. I have taught most of the interested students a few traditional Okinawan folk song’s I learned in Okinawa about Karate- Do which they both enjoy and request often. I teach both modern and traditional concepts so that I can help preserve the heritage and history of the great Okinawan Karateka while also adapting with modern violence and fighting strategies. The positive feedback I get from both the students and the parents is amazing.
I respect what you do and admire you for your honesty. One of the greatest things about our country is that people don’t have to agree on everything. Keep up the good work.
Pete, that’s one of the healthiest and most balanced perspectives I heard on the topic yet. Thanks for sharing your insights.
This is a great discussion, I hope I didnt’ come in too late. I play Judo and BJJ so I have to work with 2 different cultures and I actually enjoy using both languages. I can speak Portuguese fluently. Having a Brasilian wife and extended family helps.
I personally am against calling anyone my “Master.” That word is just too loaded in English.
It’s common place in Brasil to use the word “Professor” for Black Belts and instructors which IMO is alot more appropiate.
Yeah, I like the professor title a lot better, or just using the common titles in the original language (sensei, sabumnim, shihan, kyoshi, etc.)
But, so many people are wanting to be called “master” these days…
Using sensei didn’t start with the karate kid movie.I started training in 1960 and we used it and I know others who started in the early 50s and they used it .However the rest of it was a gradual process at least in our dojo no rush and not really required .As for “master” that was for those guys in JAPAN FUNAKOSHI YAMAGUCHI ETC. we never used it and any westerners who used it were viewed as egotistical self promoters .Besides our sensei was an aussie you want to hear someone who can slaughter the pronunciation you should have heard him and he lived in JAPAN for 8 years.I came to share ED PARKER’s point of view that the CHINESE taught the OKINAWANS in CHINESE the OKINAWANS taught the JAPANESE in a mix of HOGAN and JAPANESE the JAPANESE KOREANS AND CHINESE strive to teach us in english why are we teaching in JAPANESE.