It recently came to my attention that with the passing of two of my sensei, both of whom had been foremost authorities in their respective field their students had stopped training. What made this even more heartbreaking for me was that several of these people had held high 'rank' within the respective budo. As a non-Japanese I have always felt a huge responsibility to pass along those lessons which my teachers had bestowed upon me. Indeed aside form the children of both these sensei no-one now taught at the hombu dojo despite the fact that in some cases the children were juniors to some of my sensei's more senior students. In this post I want to reflect on the notion of 'giri' within Japanese culture and specifically the role is does and should (imho) play in Japanese Martial Arts.
In Japanese culture, the concept of "giri" (義理) stands as a fundamental and intricate principle that exerts a substantial influence on personal relationships and social interactions. It is intrinsically connected to notions of duty, obligation, and reciprocity. The comprehension of giri is of particular significance in the sphere of Japanese martial arts, where it significantly shapes the rights and responsibilities of both adult students (disciples) and instructors (sensei). This discussion will delve into the essence of giri, exploring its meaning, historical underpinnings, and its pertinence to the practice and instruction of Japanese martial arts.
Giri, depicted in kanji as 義理, is a multifaceted concept encompassing various facets of social and moral duty. Its etymological roots can be traced back to the Chinese characters 義 (gi), signifying "righteousness" or "duty," and 理 (ri), connoting "logic" or "reason." When combined, these characters create the concept of "giri," representing one's sense of obligation, responsibility, or duty, primarily stemming from social or familial relationships.
At its core, giri embodies the notion of reciprocating kindness, favours, and gestures. It functions as the unspoken code of ethics that underpins Japanese society, regulating relationships in both personal and professional spheres. It necessitates individuals to reciprocate favours, express gratitude, and conduct themselves in harmony with their assigned roles. This sense of duty is deeply entrenched in Japanese culture, with wide-ranging implications that extend into the realm of Japanese martial arts.
Within the milieu of Japanese martial arts, giri plays an indispensable role in shaping the rights and responsibilities of both adult students and instructors. The martial arts dojo (training hall) transcends mere physical training, serving as a domain where ethical values and life lessons are conveyed. Giri is woven into the very fabric of this educational environment, permeating every facet of the relationship between martial arts instructors and their mature students.
For the student, giri manifests as a duty to exhibit respect, loyalty, and dedication towards their sensei. The student is expected to heed the instructor's guidance and uphold the principles of discipline, humility, and perseverance. This entails not only mastering the physical techniques but also embracing the moral code of martial arts, encompassing virtues such as respect for others, self-control, and integrity.
The responsibilities of the student towards their sensei are deeply rooted in the concept of "on" (恩), translating to "obligation" or "debt." The student accrues a debt to their teacher for the knowledge, guidance, and mentorship bestowed upon them. This obligation is profound and may extend beyond the precincts of the dojo, influencing the student's broader life choices and actions.
In return, the sensei, too, bears a substantial sense of giri towards their students. The instructor is tasked with disseminating knowledge, instilling discipline, and nurturing the development of the student. This task must be carried out with dedication and care, given the position of authority and influence held by the sensei. The sensei's giri also extends to the cultivation of the character and values of their students, emphasising not only the physical aspects of martial arts but also the moral and ethical dimensions.
Furthermore, the sensei may experience a sense of duty towards the lineage and the preservation of the martial art itself. This lineage's historical continuity and the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next are integral aspects of the concept of giri within Japanese martial arts.
The reciprocity inherent in giri cultivates a harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship within the community of martial artists. This spirit of give-and-take ensures the perpetuation of knowledge and the safeguarding of the art form. Both students and instructors are bound by a shared sense of duty and responsibility, thereby reinforcing their connection and contributing to the overall advancement and integrity of the martial arts tradition.
In the realm of Japanese martial arts, the concept of giri is not limited to the student-teacher relationship alone; it extends to the entire dojo community. Mature students are expected to provide support and aid to one another, fostering a sense of camaraderie and solidarity. This collaborative ethos is rooted in the understanding that, in times of need, one can rely on the support of their fellow practitioners, and, reciprocally, they will extend their assistance when required.
When an adult martial artist attains a high rank within their discipline but neglects to transmit their teacher's teachings, it can be interpreted as a transgression of giri. This breach of giri emerges from the failure to meet the obligation of preserving and sharing the knowledge they have acquired. Such negligence disrupts the traditional lineage of the martial art, inhibits its progression, and fosters a self-centred disposition that runs contrary to the fundamental values of martial arts.
Indeed, when high-ranking students choose not to pass on their teacher's teachings, they can be seen as acting selfishly, lacking respect for the time and effort their teacher invested in their growth and development. They disregard the reciprocal nature of the student-teacher relationship, where the instructor imparts wisdom and guidance with the expectation that it will be preserved and shared with the next generation. This failure to reciprocate not only damages the legacy of the teacher but also hinders the growth and progression of the martial art itself.
To summarise, the concept of giri, deeply entrenched in Japanese culture, plays an integral role in delineating the rights and responsibilities of those who engage in the learning and instruction of Japanese martial arts. It embodies the principles of duty, obligation, and reciprocity, thereby shaping the relationships between adult students and instructors within the dojo. Students are duty-bound to exhibit respect and loyalty towards their sensei, while instructors bear the responsibility of disseminating knowledge and fostering the growth of their students. This shared sense of duty engenders a harmonious and mutually advantageous relationship that extends beyond the dojo's confines, contributing to the conservation and evolution of Japanese martial arts. The tenets of giri encapsulate the profound moral and ethical dimensions inherent in the practice of martial arts, elevating it beyond a mere physical discipline into a way of life.
Okinawan and Japanese Budo
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan