View Full Version : Understanding the effects of misunderstandings. A guide for the opinionated.

Steven Malanosk
24th August 2002, 00:16
This is an article, that was printed in the July 1972, issue of Karate Illustrated Magazine, written by Shihan Gosei Yamaguchi, Son of Seiko Shihan Gogen Yamaguchi.

Years ago, when I was still learning English. I happened to meet a gentleman. In the course of our difficult conversation, I came to understand, that the man was a teacher. Unfortunately, I could not make out the name of the subject he taught, even though he repeated it several times. I can still remember the fellows disappointment when I confessed that I had never heard of his field of expertise.

Some time later, in the middle of a karate tournament I was directing, the same gentleman came up to me and denounced me as a liar. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the man was a fellow karate instructor. The entire misunderstanding had resulted from his pronunciation of the word karate. To the best of my memory, it was something like “quaradi.”

It was an instance of the same dilemma that an American tourist is likely to face when his Japanese host invites him to a beisuBouru game Every baseball fan, is familiar with the ground ball, the left fielder and the strike, but how many Americans woulkd recognize these, as the goro, the refuto, and the sutoraiku?

I couldn’t really blame the karate instructor for calling me a liar. It must have looked like I was deliberately feigning ignorance, yet the truth of the matter is that, at that first meeting, we simply could not communicate on a subject of which we where both knowledgeable.

This lack of understanding between two people who share a common interest, is very discouraging, especially when it occurs among karate instructors. We all claim to teach true karate, yet it would be difficult to find two instructors, who would define the art, the same way. To some, karate is combat. To others it is primarily for show. Still others approach it as a religion, a teaching device, a way to physical fitness, a sport, a self defense system, or from one of a dozen other possible points of view.

Certainly, I am no less guilty of this tendency to claim ones own definition as true karate than my peers. I recall an episode that occurred in another instructors school. Several of my students, who had been observing an unusual exercise being performed by the students of the school, began to shake their heads, and smile sarcastically. Just as I prepared to admonish them for their lack of courtesy, I happened to see myself in a mirror. I was wearing the same obnoxious and ugly smile.

There is a fable about several blind men, who had never seen an elephant. One day the men had an opportunity to touch an elephant in hopes of discovering what it was really like. Afterward, when they all got together to discuss their experience, a great argument broke out. One said that the elephant, was like a woolen whip. Another said it was like a large tree. Still another said it was like a rough ceiling.

However you choose to define it, the art of karate has many dimensions: it is at once mental and physical, artistic and grotesque, practical (self defense) and non practical (sport), violent and graceful, abstract and concrete, and scientific and animalistic. Irreconcilable contradictions? I don’t think so.

Can anyone really fault the blind man who perceived the elephant to be like a woolen whip? The tail he felt was surely an essential part of the elephant, yet how can he succeed in convincing the others, who felt the belly or leg of the elephant? Most likely, he will wind up confusing himself as well as the others.

Who can say which blind man came closest to knowing what an elephant really is? Not I. Like each of the blind men, my approach to karate is subjective and necessarily incomplete.

Karate is constantly in flux. Change, brought on by separate people, places and time, is the arts most characteristic feature.

N. Gosei Yamaguchi

24th August 2002, 15:22
It's an old story but appropriate. In the past, I've been invited to train in other styles "to see a little more of the elephant."


25th August 2002, 06:55
Excellent article. Thanks for posting it.