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Dedicated to my teacher, Chuck Clark Sensei -- Jim Vance
Learning from the Learned: A Story in Pictures
My teacher describes Aikido waza as a practice of leading and
following simultaneously. After reading Jun Akiyama's opening
question on the forum thread entitled
"Responsibility: Teacher's or Student's", I realized that learning
Aikido (or most anything else) deals with the same process, that of
leading and following. Those responsible for learning and their
motivations depend largely on an understood social contract, born out
of certain circumstances within that particular society. Since this
was posed as a linguistic question, I have opted to answer it with
more attention to language than to historical precedent. In other
words, this is an open discussion on language, not an authoritative
It should be noted that, unlike Professor Peter Goldsbury, my
perspective is that of an interested outsider, without the depth of
knowledge or cultural insight attained from immersion in Japanese
society. Over the last few years, I have researched the Japanese
written language from its adopted Chinese roots, both as an adjunct to
my understanding of Aikido terminology and an interest in Asian
calligraphy. As food for thought, this essay is more a midnight snack
than the five course meal offered up by Professor Goldsbury. It will
show the polarity of ideals within both Asian and Western learning
paradigms, the motivation for learners and the learned, and the
dynamic interaction of these concepts hidden within the kanji.
[Editor's note: the article by Peter Goldsbury referred to above is
Kanji: Symbols in the Third Dimension
Unlike most Western languages, which are written phonetically and
fundamental meanings are implied verbally, Japanese is written in
pictographs known as kanji, replete with an abundance of visible
intrinsic meaning. By exploring the kanji (using the process of
"kaiji" Professor Goldsbury discussed in his article) and its
evolution from the older Chinese pictographs, we may gain additional
insight into the nature of these titles. Also, there can never be a
word-for-word translation of languages so far removed from common
interaction like English and Japanese. We must try to match the
"flavor" of the words used through context, through their definitions,
and through the cultural background from which they have emerged.
I have an acquaintance with the author Boye DeMente, who has written
several books on interacting with the Japanese culture, and has
influenced me greatly through his writing and shared discussions. He
insists that along with a couple other languages, Japanese is
predominantly a "right-brained" language, a language that uses the
creative, spatial, right lobe of the cerebral cortex. This would
account for the Japanese tendency to relate more through tone and
connotation rather than the Western model of logic and deduction.
Boye says that for most Japanese, speaking English for an hour or more
can be physically draining. Although an interesting and sustainable
theory, it remains to be proven scientifically. The spatial nature of
the Japanese spoken language resonates within their adaptation of
Chinese characters, which I feel have more a "three dimensional"
quality as a symbol than a purely phonetic device. Each character is
a story, a dynamic interaction of elements (radicals), more akin to an
algebraic equation than an alphabet.
We will unravel the equations for "Sensei" and "Shihan" later in the
essay, but first we need a frame of reference. As Western proponents
of Asian martial arts, we are oftentimes interested in searching the
nuances of the parent culture that gave birth to our field of study,
as well we should be. We must also pay close attention to our own
culture, using an inside-out approach to our own questioning. Do we
pay as much attention to understanding our own culture as we should?
To satisfy this mandate, let's take a closer look at our own
relationship to learning.
The Western Polarity: Instruction vs. Teaching
Students learn according to two different ideals. They are either
taught or they are instructed. At first glance, the difference
between these two terms is almost insignificant, but deeper inspection
reveals a powerful inter-related hierarchy. (As Professor Goldsbury
so eloquently stated, I too am interested more in clarity of mind with
regard to punctuation than the appropriate grammar.)
Instruction hides the word "structure" in its makeup. I like the
definition of structure as "something arranged in a definite pattern
of organization". It implies relationship and identity. Instruction
is the building-up of a person, mentally, physically, and emotionally.
The building-in, or edification, of information and knowledge is a
very cerebral process. It is a dynamically external process.
Instruction can also imply command and obedience, which resides at
very deep levels in the human brain.
The word "teach" comes from the same etymological family as the word
"token". A token is an outward device or expression used to
distinguish. Unfortunately in today's world, a "token" anything
normally implies something done insincerely out of obligation. But
the term still serves its original meaning, and that is to show.
Teaching is showing through character, actively or passively. Within
the learning field, the saying should read "actions teach louder than
words". Being a teacher is hard not only because teachers must
understand the material they are teaching at a cognitive level, they
must also internalize and embody the principles of their discipline.
It is my belief that instruction leads to teaching, but only through
diligent and committed practice on the part of the instructor, and
working with many, many students. Since learning through teaching is
a more passive, internal process, good teachers are challenged to
motivate their students creatively, rather than rely on the obedience
inherent within the instructive ideal. Teaching creates a more mature
student, but the teacher may have to lead them through several levels
of instruction to get that student where he can be taught.
Motivation in Learning: Education vs. Apprenticeship
There are two different models of learning, one perhaps developed from
the wisdom loving roots of all "higher cultures" and the other the
product of most feudal cultures worldwide. The question of
responsibility in regard to learning is polarized between these two
models, education and apprenticeship.
The root word of education is "educe", which means to draw forth or
lead out some latent ability or potential. By the very nature of the
verb, the primary responsibility for learning lies within the
educator, with the student and their latent potential as subject. The
job of the educator and their relative skill has as its first priority
the manifestation of previously unrecognized knowledge within their
subject. Their livelihood depends on it.
The key to this model is that the educator's attention is focused on
the learner and whether they comprehend the subject matter. Methods
are geared to developmental patterns, assessment of objective
criteria, and the absorption of information in quantity. This model
is beneficial when the learner is actively engaged in the process.
When a student is unwilling to learn, the entire educational process
must take on a different form and emphasis; such is the tragedy of the
American public school system.
An apprentice is a person, normally contracted or indentured, who
works under a group of skilled laborers, craftsmen, or artists. They
are typically inexperienced workers looking to gain knowledge and
apply it towards their own gain. The craftsman's job (the person
instructing/teaching the apprentice) has as its first priority the
craft at hand. Learning takes a subordinate role, and this is
recognized in the etymology of the name "apprentice". Apprentice
comes from the Latin word "apprendere", which means to seize or to
grasp. The responsibility for learning swings from the educator at
the educational pole down to the apprentice at the apprenticeship
Since the focus of the master/apprentice relationship is the craft or
skill being used to create a product or service, attention to quality
takes much higher precedence over the volume of learning. In many
cases, this system may only allow a "master" one or two truly adept
followers. This worked well under the static Tokugawa regime, where
the culture was in a state of enforced fixation, designed to keep the
country stable and the rulers in power. The ability of the artisan
class during this era reached unimaginably high aesthetic levels,
inspiring both Impressionist and Modern art in the Western world.
Medieval Europe produced equally high craftsmen under their version of
the apprentice system.
Whether or not one method is better than the other is a moot point.
They share complementary strengths and weaknesses, invoking the vision
of some future synthesis, much like the Suzuki school of music has
been able to do. Since Aikido has become more prevalent outside of
Japan, it would provide fertile ground to explore the interaction
between education and apprenticeship.
The Japanese Complement: Sensei vs. Shihan
So what, if anything, have we discussed that relates the differences
between a Sensei and a Shihan? A Sensei is a teacher and a Shihan is
a teacher of teachers, right? Not necessarily. The usage of these
words and their everyday meaning reflects not only the above
definitions, but also the status given to and required from teachers
and their students within different communities. Nothing is as cut
and dry within the Japanese community as it is within the American
community, largely as a result of cultural necessity and the language.
American ideals focus on independence and commerce; the competitive
nature of these ideals along with Western objectivity encourages the
"education-instruction" model. Japan's respect for tradition and the
"Culture of Wa" (harmony; this is the title of an essay written by
Boye DeMente in his book The Japanese Have A Word For It) has passed
down the "apprenticeship-teaching" form of learning prized within
Japanese society for hundreds of years. Language must be understood
within the context of these cultures, so that we do not enforce rules
that not only do not exist, but in many cases run opposite one
In both societies, there exist unwritten definitions, meanings not at
first revealed in regards to most traditional terms, regardless of the
actual, denoted usage. In America we call most portable cassette
players "Walkman", or we say "Let's go get a Coke" when we want to
have a soft drink with a friend, or we blow our nose with "Kleenex"
rather than facial tissue. A friend of mine who spent nearly a decade
in Japan says "Japanese is all slang; it just depends on who is
talking to whom." The terms "Sensei" and "Shihan" do have a
correlation with learning, but it may not be the direct, logical
syllogism our Western mind dictates. So let's pull out our linguistic
cutlery and slice up the midnight snack I promised earlier.
Sensei can be defined as "born before", but this is not the only valid
rendering into English. This title is reserved for public authorities
who live without a specific honorific. Teachers, doctors, and lawyers
are all called Sensei. At the very least, we can look at them as an
"expert", a citizen whose field requires some study and practice.
Although this has no historical or cultural basis, I like to translate
the term Sensei as "promotes (moves towards) growth/life" due to the
original meaning and interaction of the Chinese characters.
HSIEN becomes SEN
SHENG becomes SEI
The first kanji SEN is pronounced HSIEN in Chinese. This normally
translates as "before, ahead, or earlier" in Japanese, but also means
to advance or to progress with one's feet. The original ancient
pictographs are called tenji or "seal characters"; they were used in
carved stamps to show ownership or authority. (Today most every
Japanese citizen uses the same characters for legal purposes on hanko,
personalized stamps.) They were the initial step in the evolution of
kanji, approximating the ancient pictures and glyphs used for
divination. This particular tenji shows a small plant ascending from
the ground above a man's legs. The next character SEI is called SHENG
in China, and it shows another plant growing but rather than having
legs underneath, it has two stems growing out either side. It is
normally translated as "life" or "born" in Japanese, but can also mean
to bear, to spring, to live, or to grow.
Shihan defined in a somewhat rigid translation can mean "master
example", but should not be limited to that single version. This is a
very complex kanji compound. The term SHI normally translates to
"teacher", but also relates to armies when compounded with other
kanji. The reason for this is simple. The ancient character, also
pronounced SHIH in Chinese, shows a hill with two small terraces
(which means a city, town, or municipal area) on the left next to a
hanging or waving banner radical on the right. The story within this
kanji is one of identifying the leader or master, the place where a
flag would be hung either in a camp or in a town.
SHIH becomes SHI
FAN becomes HAN
The kanji HAN is very difficult, without a definite or logical
etymological synthesis. It means "a law, a rule, a pattern, or a
limit". It is composed of three smaller kanji, normally referred to
as radicals. The three radicals show bamboo hanging down (top), a
cart (left bottom) and a bud blooming forth (right bottom). The bud
radical gives the character, pronounced FAN in Chinese, its phonetic
quality. But I found it interesting that this particular radical also
implies "an external manifestation of an interior force". The "bud"
radical is also debatably a "stamp" radical, meaning authority,
stamping, or measuring.
The combination of the bud radical and the cart radical make a word in
Chinese that meant a "transversal bar in front of ancient carts". A
bamboo radical typically refers to kinds of bamboo or articles made
with bamboo. So my question was "Was FAN originally a measuring stick
of some kind, one that perhaps dictated street widths, or at the very
least, cart manufacture?" Applying this incredibly rich undercurrent
to an English translation is very challenging. One somewhat poetic
version is "leading standard" (keep in mind that the original meaning
of "standard" once meant a flag or banner).
By exploring the Western language as well as the Japanese, we could
safely say that the Japanese learning model centers more around
teaching and apprenticeship, while the West leans more to instruction
and education. I think that by including aspects of all available
paradigms, every interested person has the potential to learn
regardless of their social context. According to the above
definitions, I personally identify "Sensei" as an instructor, and
"Shihan" as a teacher. The dynamic nature of instruction coupled with
the deeper reading of the kanji for Sensei denotes a positive creation
of knowledge within students. Conversely, the exemplary character of
teaching meshes well with the "living measurement" of a Shihan.
Since the study of Aikido is a budo, a lifelong engagement, we must go
through stages of education and apprenticeship. I have never used the
term "Shihan" while interacting with my teacher. This leads me to
believe that the term "Sensei" will always be used in regards to the
direct, overt communication of Aikido from the learned to the
learning. It is the passive, subtle, lifelong identification with the
ideals of Aikido that make him "Shihan", in the lessons I learn in
quiet places. He participates in my education by pointing out details
every time I see him, but I will be his apprentice for the rest of my
life, even long after he is gone. He constantly says we have much to
learn from each other, although I have less than a sixth of the time
spent training that he does. The models of education and
apprenticeship must balance and enrich each other for them both to
retain validity. One without the other leads to staleness and
lethargy, but the shared responsibility of leading and following in
search of a more complete understanding illustrates the very nature of
the practice of Aikido.
Jim Vance, Nidan, Jiyushinkai Aikibudo
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