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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Masters of the Karate Universe

The west has had a long standing fascination with 'the orient' a mythical construction that encapsulates all cultures east of European boarders in mysticism, magic and exoticism. One way westerners love to mystify their romantically constructed views of the east is through poor translations of language. This is a practice that is particularly pervasive in the world of Karate.

Today we will explore the problems with translating the word Sensei 「先生」to mean master. The term Sensei is a Japanese title often attached to teachers that means "the one who came before" or "the one who lived before". 先 = previous or before and 生 = birth, pretty simple no? Only when translated into English does it come to mean master.

The misuse of the word Sensei in western culture is a direct result of eastern romanticism. I am always surprised by how many people become diluted in the martial arts as they search for messiahs, seemingly enchanted godly beings of all-knowingness. These people simply do not exist. Just because a man practiced Karate a hundred years before you, does not mean he is magical. It simply means he did it before you. Though their skills may seem godly at times they are most often the result of hard work and perseverance. Sadly at times they are the result of trickery.

Now I am not trying to say Sensei's should not be given respect but I do believe that by no means should any one Sensei be seen to be an all-knowing master. As far as I am concerned any one who has mastered something no longer has any reason to continue their practice, and those who do not practice have no place in teaching. The greatest "masters" I have ever known never refereed them selves as such and were always working to better their craft.

In closing I would like to say there is nothing wrong with attaching your Karate practice to Japanese culture and using terms like Sensei. However it is important to be sure you understand what the terms you are using mean. When confronted with a new term coming from a language outside of your own I suggest you spend some time doing your research before you start sloppily throwing it around and bowing your head to those who have not yet earned your respect or demanding respect from others based on your personal title of exulted grand master supreme.

*The term Sensei is not exclusively abused and misunderstood in western culture. The Japanese themselves often become blinded by such fancy titles.

* If you are interested in Japanese I suggest you download Imiwa formerly known as Kotoba to you phone. This is a great Japanese/ English dictionary. It is not perfect but it is free and will serve most of your demystifying needs.

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