Respect, the tie that binds us or the stick that beats us?

This is a subject that has been much on my mind lately for a variety of reasons, some personal, some not so much. I have recently been accused (by a friend) of being a bit controversial on occasions and this well may be one of those occasions, this is not an intentional attempt to court controversy however and I understand that this is a (very) sensitive subject for some. Having said that, despite what some seem to think , I am as entitled to an opinion as any and so all I would say is that by reading further you are intentionally asking my opinion, it is based on my personal experiences and ongoing visibility of some parts of the larger karate world, take it as what it is.
Respect or should I say “Respect ™” (for reasons which will become obvious) is much touted as one of the main virtues of traditional karate (and I believe that same can still be said for most traditional arts).

Look at pretty much any advertising aimed at kids classes and you will see courtesy, discipline and respect touted as one of the main benefits of sending your child to partake in a martial art (although why these things are not being taught at home still mystifies me slightly). Be that as it may, participation in a martial art at a young age does tend to bring a number of benefits in attitude and behaviour, if the feedback I used to get from parents and teachers was anything to go by when I still ran children’s classes.

I have no issues with proper dojo etiquette for both children and adult classes, karate (if you follow what has become the “traditional” model) has become a very formal and formalised art and there is a culture that has become part of that tradition which is followed to a greater or lesser extent in pretty much all dojos. This can be a positive thing if it brings a feeling of belonging to something more than just a sporting activity or hobby (even if the reality is that it is actually nothing more than that for many participants). Part of that etiquette is the notion of respect. Respect to your sensei, respect to the seniors, respect to your peers and respect down the line. This is a very fine notion and one which I am all in favour of (and I labour that point specifically because of where I am heading with this particular article). The problem is that, in some places (and I do emphasise the “some”), respect has become a thing in itself rather than a feeling.

Rather than being something that is earned, offered and given freely it has become instead part of the dogma of modern karate and is demanded as a right, whether deserved or not. It may well be culturally appropriate if you are of Japanese origin, I cannot say, my understanding of actual Japanese culture is very superficial and all I have to go on is the mock culture transposed onto Western karate as if it were some sort of 14th century feudal system.

  • “Thou shall respect thy sensei and everything he says”
  • “Thou shall respect thy seniors”
  • “Thou shall respect anything attributed to the old masters”
  • “Thou shall respect any accepted “truth” of karate history” without question (despite how much of it is just made up)

Now, like most of the (slightly) strange things many people do in their karate training I have no issue with people playing at being the “new samurai” and considering themselves to be “warriors” for an hour or two a week if that’s what floats their boat (despite the fact that the “old samurai” had nothing to do with karate anyway and punching fresh air in a pair of white pyjamas doesn’t make you a warrior) and do the pretend stuff in dojo while dressed from the “dressing up box”, as long as everybody understands that is what it is.

Should you respect your sensei? Well hopefully yes, otherwise why are you training with him at all? However, should your sensei demand your unquestioning respect as a right? That is a different question entirely.

I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of adopting the term “sensei” as if it were a conferred title (it isn’t and never has been but Westerners particularly seem to like the phrase “I am a Sensei” just to make themselves a little more special than anyone else).

As a word to use in dojo for your instructor, fine, we use Japanese terminology for everything else so why not that? On your business cards or Face Book profile you start to sound a little more pompous but if it is used in the context of communication with your students it may still be valid.

If you insist on being referred to as “Sensei” by students outside of the dojo, and the parents and family of students who don’t even train with you (and anybody else who has a tenuous link to you via your karate activities) then you should just stop it. It may be ok to treat 6 year olds as 6 years olds (although I have my doubts on that even) but when you are treating grown adults as 6 year olds then that’s too far. Please take your mock “lord of all” persona off with your Gi when you leave the dojo and go back to being just another bloke (because that’s all you are).

The truth is that in many dojos and organisations (both big and small) “Respect ™” has become nothing to do with actual earned respect (or mutual respect) but all to do with control and making sure that people “know their place” in the hierarchy.

I have seen it first hand and find it very sad that grown adults fall for the “Yoda principle” and assume that some bloke on minimum wage in the real world is a life coach on all things (karate related or not) because he happens to bet a bit better at punching and kicking stuff than the rest of us. This is a direct result of the “sensei knows all and must never be questioned” culture found in many dojos (and I do realise this does not mean ALL dojos but these guys are out there in numbers).

Now I don’t want to put anyone off sending their children to karate classes, there are a lot of positive benefits. They will behave better, they will have more focus, they will have more discipline and they will be physically more active and confident BUT be aware that they are not learning this in a culture of real mutual respect but in a culture where “Respect ™” is about knowing your place, “you will bow to me because I am better than you” “you will not question my truth (even if patently absurd) because I am better than you” “you will bow to my black belts and treat them with (almost) as much reverence as me because they are also better than you” “if you work hard and do not question you will rise to a place where others will have to bow and listen to you because you are now better than them”.

I’m not saying that as a system it doesn’t work, it obviously does and it achieves results (particularly with children) but it sounds a little less attractive when put in those terms. So if any of that makes you uneasy, then take the time to look around at the culture of any group you consider sending your children to, or even joining yourself.

So, as I’ve said previously on many subjects, if you are doing what you enjoy in a culture you enjoy and do so knowingly then more power to you but do take a step back occasionally and look at what you are doing with a critical eye, just so that you know.



(sorry, couldn’t resist)


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