My first year living in Tokyo, I was so excited to be practicing at the Aikikai Hombu dojo (world headquarters of Aikido) that I immediately seized upon every opportunity to socialize or spend time with my peers. It was then that I was invited to spend an evening with a group of senior foreign students at one of their apartments eating, drinking, and watching some videos of Aikido.
They were particularly interested in a tape of a recent documentary by the teaching staff of the Hombu dojo, which had been broadcast on NHK (the Japanese equivalent of PBS here in the United States.) This show was to be an introduction to Aikido for the vast audience that had either never heard of it or had limited experience with the martial arts and wanted to see a comprehensive overview. Many of the current younger instructors were featured in the show as well as the current Doshu (head of the Aikikai). The demonstrations showed various ukemi (rolling & falling) and kihon waza (basic techniques) intended for the uninitiated, and our entire group of onlookers very much enjoyed the show.
There followed a lively discussion of Aikido in general, and many of the previous public demonstrations given over the past years, in particular. Although I was, by far, the most junior member present, I nonetheless participated eagerly and had a comment of my own for every topic presented. I was especially vocal in stating which of the Shihans’ techniques I thought were best compared to the others and which I thought to be most effective.
During our discussions I received many stares by some of the other guests, especially when I vocalized my opinions regarding one or another of the teachers’ techniques. I wasn’t sure what to make of these stares, and by the end of the evening I was silently listening, as it had been made clear that my comments did not seem to be welcome. Very confused, and a bit depressed, I left for the evening wondering what breach of etiquette I had made—and worse, whether or not I would ever be invited back to join these senior students who I so looked up to.
A few days later, my friend and sempai (senior), who had also been at the recent gathering, called me aside after practice. We went to a nearby coffee shop and, over a tiny cup of Tokyo’s strongest brew, he explained to me all of the transgressions I had made during our recent evening together. He started by asking me whether or not I had noticed if any of the other guests at the gathering had either complimented or criticized the different instructors techniques after viewing the videotape? I replied that I had thought they had. He corrected me and then went on to tell me that no one had done any complimenting, just that they had stated that they had enjoyed watching the instructors perform their various techniques.
The difference between what I said and what they said was that they manifested a particular attitude, namely, “from our perspective, having practiced for many fewer years than these young masters and being thusly of lower rank, we had no basis from which to comment on their techniques.” He suggested that my comments take the form: “Compared to me and my skill level, I feel the teachers in question did an admirable job of showcasing their art.”
Now, when complimenting my instructors, I always try to remind myself that—having practiced far less the teachers in question, and of course being of much lower rank—it is beyond my ability to comment on the effectiveness of their demonstrated techniques. I can, of course, say which class I enjoyed best, but I always now try to assume that their skill levels are far out of reach for my criticism, either positive or negative.
This also carries over to interpretation of the skills of my sempai in the dojo whether they were taking a test, demonstrating a technique, or teaching a class. My delight is welcome, but I now refrain from expounding on their skillfulness
This small point of etiquette may seem too detailed to some practitioners, but as my wife Noriko is fond of telling me: “The etiquette practiced in Japan is not a strict form of manners or rules, it is simply a way a ensuring that no one is embarrassed and that everyone knows the general guidelines of society and is able to fit comfortably into them.”