Seniority is one of those things in Japan that I can never quite get straight. Back home in the US, it’s all relatively simple: adults address each other by their first names, and occasions requiring formal language are limited. The only people you have to treat with any real deference are judges and your boss’s boss.
This is not the case in Japan, of course, where the age gap in any particular situation determines everything from what title you bestow upon your conversational partner to how you end your verbs. Even the Japanese-language equivalent of “I” varies depending on your age, gender and social standing relative to the person with whom you are conversing.
Of course, the implications of hierarchy don’t end wit h speech. In the presence of someone significantly high on the chart, like a teacher or martial arts sensei, it gets more complicated. If you are to conform to Japanese cultural norms, these exalted individuals must be treated with the utmost respect. In addition to using only the most polite language, you must strive to appear as deferential as possible. Openly disagreeing with or disobeying anything said to you by a sensei is a big no-no, but the list of things you have to bear in mind goes on and on, enough to fill multiple books—literally. A quick search on Amazon.jp yielded over 100,000 titles containing the word “manner.”
All of these considerations came to a confusing head last month when my 72-year-old Japanese kendo instructor handed me a bamboo sword, stood in front of me sans helmet, and told me to hit him as hard as I could.
“What,” I wondered, as my elderly teacher flared his nostrils, “could possibly be the appropriate response to this?” Clearly I couldn’t refuse; that would be insubordination and an insult. On the other hand, hitting my venerable teacher in the face with a sword didn’t seem particularly polite.“What,” I wondered, as my elderly teacher flared his nostrils, “could possibly be the appropriate response to this?” Clearly I couldn’t refuse; that would be insubordination and an insult. On the other hand, hitting my venerable teacher in the face with a sword didn’t seem particularly polite.
“C’mon, what are you waiting for?” the sensei shouted, clearly not appreciating my hesitation. “How will you learn to execute a proper head strike if you don’t know how to aim for the head? Now hit me!” He took his index finger and jabbed it into his forehead, demonstrating where I should be aiming. Each time he pointed, a few wispy gray strands of hair waved around his finger.
“Suppose I do hit him,” I thought. “What’s the proper etiquette for having struck a 72-year-old man in the face? Do I apologize? Do I let him save face by pretending it didn’t happen?” I wondered whether Miss Manners had ever had to cover a subject like this.
“But he asked me to hit him, so I was only doing what I was told,” I reasoned. “Surely I’m not in the wrong if I hit him because he ordered me to. But what if I actually hurt him? I can see the headline now: ‘Crazy American Arrested for Murder—Claims Victim Asked Him to Do It.’”
A shout from the sensei broke me out of my trance. “Don’t just stand there!” he barked in staccato Japanese, as only an angry oyaji can. “Come at me. Do it! Do it now!”
I began to panic. “Wait a minute. What if he’s only getting me to hit him so that he has an excuse to hit me back?” Visions of Full Metal Jacket and bad kung-fu movies danced in my head. “I am about to be beaten up by an old Japanese man. I may as well resign myself to my fate.”
Decision made, I raised my sword, shouted a battle cry, and aimed a blow square at my sensei’s noggin.
He stepped back and I missed completely.
“Haha! Now do it again!” he shouted, and his laughter filled the dojo. He made me repeat the exercise 100 times—each with the same result—before I was allowed to leave. I realized that there hadn’t been much to worry about: how could I, a rank beginner, possibly hope to hit a master?
After practice, I caught up with one of the other instructors, a 5th degree master in his early 50s, to ask him what my correct response should have been. He didn’t understand why I was confused until he realized that my sensei hadn’t been wearing any protective equipment.
“Yeah,” the instructor said, “he’s not supposed to do that. That’s not safe, especially for someone his age.”
“So why doesn’t anyone stop him?” I asked, perplexed.
“Well, he has his ways, and even though I outrank him I can only say so much,” the instructor said with a shrug. “After all, he’s older than me.”