Another Shiai Sunday and the gymnasium is buzzing with born again judoka everywhere, ready for another fight. A young childs voice calls out and three or four people turn around and are about to answer the call. The voice is young but it is laden with a mixture of awe, respect, and love, calls out, “ SENSEI !?”. Upon turning and recognizing the student only the right sensei answers.
So what is a sensei anyway? The word comes from two Chinese characters, which when pronounced in Japanese, is sen, meaning before and sei meaning life. In a sense it refers to a person who has had a life before you; someone who has experienced life before you and is now in a position to pass on or share that experience with you. It is an honorific title customarily assigned to a person who has knowledge and understanding of how to impart that knowledge to you. It is in fact a common word in Japan and used to mean teacher; as in science, English, music, or physical education teacher.
In the Japanese world of Budo “the martial way,” the word “sensei” takes on a different connotation. While there is still this idea of knowledge and knowing how to convey that knowledge, the origin of Judo is rooted in the martial arts of Japan. The knowledge of, or the lack of that knowledge, could mean the difference between life or death back then, and in some instances even today. When a student enters into Judo, now an Olympic sport, he or she upon first learning to throw someone will experience an exhilarating sense of empowerment. From that point on, that student is a different person, he has been given a degree of control over his physical environment, and the person who allows this to occur is the sensei.
A Judo sensei is different from a teacher, and is different from a coach. Especially when we think of the “old timers”: Kaname Kuniyuki, Eichi Koiwai, Seigo Murakami, Mitsuo Kimura, Moon Kikuchi. Or, even the young “old timers” like Jimmy Takemori and Jim Onchi, they evoke an image of order, tradition, discipline, and doing the right thing. Even when we think along the lines of all of the more recent sensei’s we have lost, they all gave of their time and love to their students, who without having had contact would have been a completely different persons. Names like Ben Palacio, Gibs Debrill, John Ogden, Roy Murakami, Chuck Fuertsch, Steve Bell, come to mind as they have left us, and left a hole in the community where once they made great citizens through their teaching of Judo.
So what did they do that was so special? In their regular lives, they were regular people complete with assets and deficits, financial, physical and psychosocially as well, but what they taught us was that it was possible to do most things that we put our minds to doing and that it could be done with dignity. They were the role models and our quiescent conscience. In a world that usually told us “might was right “ our sensei taught us “might for right”.
Almost every sensei knows intuitively that with power comes responsibility. The responsibility that the knowledge and the power vested into each student should be used in the most productive way possible. It starts with respect; respect for the practice session, respect for the instructor, respect for our fellow students and even respect for the opponent, and how do we exhibit this respect, --- we bow.
Bowing is only the outward manifestation of a deeper understanding that every judoka begins to understand the longer he has been practicing Judo. For example, its one thing to perfunctorily bow to your sensei and just laugh and play around in the dojo, as did a group of judoka in Puerto Rico in the 1950. They thought that a visiting sensei was very weak, where in fact he was trying to be accommodating as a guest instructor. They joked in Spanish that Japan had sent a woman to do a man’s job. The underestimated instructor the next day got wind of the reasons for the laughter and that they were essentially making fun of him and Japan. He proceeded to morph into a different kind of instructor. There in after, the Puerto Ricans most likely collectively had enough fight time to qualify for a pilots license. At the end of practice the bowing was not only physically different it had a different feeling attached to it as well. Although they did not get physically injured, they none the less had had an attitude adjustment. They no longer mistook gentle accommodation to be a sign of weakness and that respect should always be present no matter who or what the situation may be. The guest instructor was Takahiko Ishikawa, All Japan Judo Champion.
Speaking of underestimations, Dr. Gibbs DeBril was an enigma. He was a eccentric sensei for a small after school Judo program at a junior high school in Bell Gardens, Ca. He would often come with a few of his kids to the Yudanshakai sponsored tournaments but his kids hardly ever won a match. Still, he would bring them and they would try valiantly. Gibs’, freckled faced, bald headed, could be seen at mat side with his white shirt, complete with pocket protector, encouraging his kids, but hardly ever on to victory.
Once one of his kids came off the mat after being trounced righteously. Gibs patted him on the back vigorously and said, “Man, you did great!” People around him stopped and looked at him as if to say, “Were we looking at the same match?” After a while I approached him and asked, “Were we watching the same match? You know your kid got smashed. He lost, and you’re patting him on the back as if he won. What gives?” Eyes narrowing and with a semi smile his crackly high voice answered, “I had a hard time convincing him to come down here. Julio comes from a poor family. I paid his fees to get into the tournament otherwise he would have gone with his neighborhood gang friends. The judogi he’s wearing is a borrowed one from one of John Ogden’s student. He’s full of pride and the defeat was hard for him but he knows that I’m proud of him because he tried. I told him judo is not that easy. He thought because he’s tough on the streets he could win. Actually he was afraid to put his ego on the line too because he could lose. Now he knows there are different things that are out there that are tougher to do. In my book he’s a winner.”
In my book, Gib’s is a winner. Everyone has their private goals and victories and defeats. I don’t know what ever happened to Julio, if he became a success or got swallowed up by his environment. But I’m sure he will never forget Sensei Gibs and his experience in Judo. More importantly that he stood up and met the challenge head on in the face of fear. It’s been more than fifteen years or so since Gib’s died in a car accident. So for fifteen years or so Bell Gardens has not had a Gibs DeBril sensei helping to mold needy kids into brave citizens.
Sensei’s by nature of their position seem to hold a lot of sway over their students. One word of encouragement, praise, advice, or rebuke can elicit, in many instances, instant changes in behavior. Where parents may nag their children about things like cleaning up ones room, taking out the garbage, or doing homework, a caution from a sensei now becomes a serious matter and must be attended to. Sensei Isao Wada’s initial greeting with his students at the door of the dojo was an inquisitive, “John, did you do your homework?” or “Kenny are you listening to your mother?” These questions although said with a smile placed in the mind of the student the importance of hierarchy, order, honor, discipline and respect if one was to be a member of the Judo family.
A couple of years ago when Sensei’s John Ogden and Steve Bell both died in the same year, Nanka Yudanshaki’s membership dropped from about 1500 members to 1400 members. Both of these sensei’s were dedicated judoka and their shoes could not be filled and the dojo’s faded. What were some of those qualities and how can we encourage them in others so that Judo does not fade away. Here are a few of the more obvious reasons why Senseis are not made overnight. Judo sensei’s have to have: a love of Judo; a love of people; a belief in the concepts that underpin Judo and the good it can do for our students and love ones; an ability and knowledge of how Judo techniques work; knowledge of the organizational structures and how to work within them; knowledge of how to keep the doors of a dojo open (financial management skills). Sensei’s have to be organized and be able to recognize and appreciate skill levels as well as develop their students to the next level. These qualities don’t come easy or fast. Like fine wine there is an aging factor involved. Your sensei’s took a long time to develop. It’s an ongoing process.
Both the USJA and the USJF are committed to developing the next generation of Judo leaders and instructors. Both organizations know the importance of supporting the Judo teacher education programs throughout the United States. The health and vitality of Judo starts with the sensei. Sensei’s are the ones who start dojos. Dojo’s have students. Students in turn become members of USJA or USJF. The larger the membership the more services that can be offered. The more services offered the better Judo we can usually perform. It all begins with the sensei.
For information on the USJF Teachers Institute or the Coaching Certification Programs visit the USJF Teachers Institute Website at www.usjf.com.
; For the USJA Coaching Program go to USJA website at www.usja-judo.org
Author: Hayward Nishioka, Professor of Health and Physical Education at Los Angeles City College, 8th Dan