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Home > Language > Learning from the Learned: A Story in Pictures
by Jim Vance <Send E-mail to Author>

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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 dissertation.

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 available here.]

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 pole.

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 another.

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.

Transverse Bar

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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