Giri

A word much valued in the history of Japanese martial arts but fewer and fewer demonstrate this or know it now!  Translated as duty, righteousness, obligation or burden it is the unspoken, the unquestionable, the understanding by unbreakable ties, it weighs heavy on those that understand it.  The west looks upon the meaning more towards loyalty and in some ways this is the closest many will get in their understanding.  I was told whilst training in Japan that if you do not feel it, then it does not exist.

It can be defined as a social obligation and this can be seen in the harmony of Japanese society as well as in more visual aspects such as the pride in looking after the neighborhood and keeping it clean.

The examples I was given ranged from the inconvenient to the onerous and burdensome weight of conforming or assisting even when you do not want to do so.

Traditionally you could say that it is to serve one’s superiors with complete self-sacrificing devotion along with righteousness and loyalty.  A few years ago I took a squad to Japan and whilst in Tokyo visited the graves of the 47 Ronin.  A classic tale of utter devotion in the 18th century to their lord, 47 duty bound samurai from the province of Ako invoked one of the most severe examples of Giri in seeking revenge for the death of their master (Asano Naganori/ Asano Takumi no kami) by an unscrupulous usurper (Kira Yoshinaka/Kira Kozuke no suke) in 1701.  They waited over a year to exact revenge knowing they would have to subsequently commit ritual suicide (seppuku).  There was much public support but this did not change the outcome.  It is viewed as one of the ultimate acts of duty, loyalty honor and sacrifice within the sphere of Giri.  Japanese say historically Giri was more important than a samurai’s life.

This value is so integral to Japanese culture that it has been played out in Japanese drama since the Heian period (Kyoto 794-1185) and possibly earlier.  It is a conflict between Giri and Ninjo, being human feeling and emotion.  The conflict rarely seen but most definitely felt is the struggle and dynamics between the self in relation to society and the inner self in relation to the intimate realms and singular thinking.  In simple terms the human dilemma of needing to belong to the realms of the external or outside (Soto) as well as the inside (Uchi/Naka).

I can say that it is common for Japanese abroad often to complain about poor service.  Japanese value carrying out their work and obligations (Giri) to the best of their abilities including what might seem to those from less formal social environments to be excessive or even for the cynical, hypocritical or contrived formality and servility.

This quality of Giri reaches all aspects of Japanese life and culture especially in traditional martial arts.  The understanding of “Reigi” and “Sonkei”, politeness and respect along with the unspoken acceptance of duty to name just a few qualities found in the dojo underpins the way of thinking and subtle understanding of Giri.

In this modern era studying classical martial arts and expecting students to understand Giri is for most a step too far.   I have scene set the understanding and engrained thinking and behavior in Japanese society to help understand the usage in the study of Bujutsu.

When you bow entering the dojo (Rei), when you kneel (Seiza), when you bow to the front (Shomen), when you bow to your teacher (Sensei), when you bow to the seniors, (Sempai), all are subtle aspects of Giri.  When you prepare to start a kata, when you prepare to undertake Kumite with your partner, the examples that unify are exhaustive.

When I was living in Japan I initially for two years lived in the Dojo apartment and was therefore tied into the dojo less talked about tasks like washing and cleaning the floor and sweeping before and after every lesson.  This was undertaken under the watchful eyes of the seniors prior to O’Sensei entering the dojo and after he left.  There were other tasks less dignified but it educated the juniors to be part of the dojo, respect it and know their place in the Kohai-Sempai relationship.

As with many overseas students who stayed for any length of time in Japan in the early 1980’s, teaching English was a good way to live and support training.  Often O’Sensei would approach me to ask to assist in teaching outside of the standard classes to overseas groups and I always said yes even though I was busy and often had English lessons to teach.  These lessons were quickly cancelled and I always supported O’Sensei when requested.  Looking back this was an understanding of Giri even though I could not admit to doing it consciously at the time.  It was that I was feeling my appreciation and duty to O’Sensei, the Ongaeshi.

 I think O’Sensei knew I cancelling the lessons but never spoke of it.  He would however often suggest we went for lunch somewhere, a great opportunity for me to ask questions and learn history and on other occasions he would just ask if I was free in the afternoons and teach me in the dojo.   I was fortunate but in my endeavors to help I was learning about Giri.

I did make many mistakes in understanding what was expected of me.  When we used to travel as a group to Kyoto or Tokyo to demonstrate we would meet outside the dojo, which was next to O’Sensei’s house.  Living almost next to the dojo myself I arrived the first time I was invited at 6:55 am for an agreed gathering for 7 am.  O’Sensei was there and just looked at me and said, ”you are late”! I bowed and apologies making note to get there next time 10 minutes earlier.  I duly did this and O’Sensei was there again before me and again said I was late.  I wanted to say, but the agreed time was 7 am but it was not appropriate.  I subsequently asked Shingai Sensei who said you must always be there before O’Sensei.  A lesson learnt the hard way.

The most severe case of misunderstanding what was expected of me had significant repercussions.  After I returned from Japan I would try and return every 6 months for training.  I would always agree the dates with O’Sensei and always telephoned him when I arrived at Narita airport, Tokyo to say where and when we should meet and whether I should stay in Tokyo or go to Shizuoka.  On one occasion my wife’s friends came to meet us and said they would take us by car into Tokyo.  Hesitant as I was that I had not telephoned O’Sensei it was agreed we would do it when we arrived at their apartment in Tokyo.  Unfortunately we got stuck in a major traffic jam and I eventually telephoned O’Sensei about 4 hours after I had touched down.  I still remember to this day the response.  I said I had arrived and he said he knew as he had checked with the airline.  I said what would you like me to do and he said do as you wish.  The call ended coldly and I had transgressed the expectations on me.  I trained at the Honbu in Shizuoka and was told to just join the normal lessons.  This transgression took over a year for him to forgive me and talk to me again due to my lack of Giri.  I was treated as just another student who had not earned access to what would be considered to be the inner circle.  I should have known better and this was also compounded by the fact he gave me away as my Japanese father when I got married in Japan, so I was in other ways family.

For many who teach and read this, you will ask yourself whether any of your students understand Giri.  You will ask yourself, how many have come and gone despite words of great deeds and devotion.  You will look at old photos and wonder where they are now and why did they stop?  This is the obvious example of Giri, showing commitment on the long road to their teacher and to training.  I do caveat that all teachers should train more than their students to stay ahead thus demonstrating the true meaning of Sensei, he who walks ahead.   For some you will have devoted much of your time and taught students to a high level, they may have won many competitions and you have seen them leave and start their own club and possibly own style.  Just look at the list of styles and independent teachers registered in the UK alone and you will see how many have not studied the values of Japanese martial arts, only the techniques.    

I do not advocate the way of the 47 Ronin but do think serious teachers are more deserving at least of the western interpretation of Giri, being loyalty.  The Japanese see this trait as a kindred spirit in the UK, knights walking the same path with the same thinking as Samurai, loyalty chivalry and Giri.  It is fair to say that even in Japan now the young are not as dedicated to the strong traditions as they were.  Westernization has influenced the ways of thinking and this is apparent now in martial arts.  However, Giri is ever present in the ways of business for example with heavy expectations on being in the office first and leaving last for all new employees.  You have 20 days annual leave but you are only supposed to take 10 days!  It is the unspoken burden in the community and society with guilty feelings.

When I discussed Giri with O’Sensei he would say that it is a burden, something not convenient or liking to do but nevertheless you do it!  Someone asking for your help at 3 am when you are asleep in bed and awoken by a telephone call saying they are in trouble.  Asking of your support for someone or something you would not support if you were left to your own decision.  If it were family you would surely do it without thinking!  As I said earlier if you do not feel it then it does not exist.   I was asked of things the last time I last saw O’Sensei when I visited him in hospital.  He knew that I would take his request seriously and it would come to pass even though I would carry this as a burden for the rest of my life adhering under duress but nevertheless adhering.  I am reminded by a good friend also who was there and knows I struggle at times but also knows I will keep my word and respect the vow of Giri.       

Set against the demands of martial arts and the sacrifices needed to continue to walk the path it is necessary sometimes to step back and reflect on the unspoken things that are learned and need to be learned.  For teachers it is a lonely path and as time passes there are less and less that share the journey.  Taking time to reflect on the benefits of martial arts and the pillars of character that keep a dojo healthy, Giri is ever present.

Remember, fulfilling one’s obligation does not merely entail the consideration of interest or profit anticipated.  Also remember that Giri is also based on feelings of affection.  This is seen in the perpetual nature of Giri relationships.

I have provided a small matrix showing the building blocks for Bujutsu and the position of Giri in these.

The Building Blocks of Bujutsu

Text Box:

Stage 1.

Stage 2.

*Giri – Only when/if students make their Sensei feel Giri towards them can they be worthy and deserve teaching

The matrix shows the relationship in the dojo and the understanding of Giri and Ongaeshi.  The lower grade requests and the more senior grade expect Giri. 

This understanding for some is known in different ways.  For example, sending my students to Japan always makes me nervous. This nervousness does not depend on the student’s ability or level.   This is because I know how my Senpai will treat my students there based on our relationship.  They do their best for my students even if they are beginners because there is Giri and I must not show a lack of my Giri to my Senpai in Japan.  Students often take everything for granted and drop their guard and unwittingly or unknowingly become too familiar and impolite.  They misunderstand Japanese Sensei are kind because they are guests from the west!  This is viewed in Japan as not being the student’s fault but mine. 

This is Giri in the dojo. 

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