A Conversation with Sensei
By Garry Parker
We all have them, those of us who train, have had conversations with our teachers. Like our relationships, these conversations cover a myriad of topics and they mature with our age. As a young man, and a fairly new karate student our conversations were driven by my thirst for new knowledge; My Sensei and I talked about karate techniques, history, training methods, differences and similarities found within other ryu (styles), but mostly, Sensei patiently answered my questions; in those first few years, there was an endless supply of questions too. As time passed, Takamiyagi Sensei continued to answer my questions, give me advice, and teach me the importance of the ‘do’ in karate-do. One topic that has recurred in our conversations over the past 25 years is courtesy and respect; these are common elements found in the character of each karate-practitioner, and these elements are timeless.
Last night as I was speaking to Takamiyagi Sensei on the phone, I was reminded again how ingrained courtesy and respect are in the daily lives of karate-ka; these concepts are woven into the fabric of our character, and grow more sincere with age and maturity. Sensei and I talk on the phone 2-3 times per month, and although I last called only a week ago, I called him again last night to discuss some visitors to Okinawa that were interested in meeting and training with him. With the combination of social media and the promotion of many seminars and groups that host karate training vacations for foreigners in Okinawa, the karate world has become more accessible to all. The familiarity has often caused foreigners/Westerners to forget or altogether ignore protocol when seeking to visit and train with a teacher in Okinawa. That is, you still need a letter of indroduction, or in modern times, a phone call or email will suffice. In any case, it is not acceptable to call an Okinawan teacher and attempt to set up a visit and training time simply because one has trained at a seminar and received a meishi (name card/business card). A formal introduction is still required by someone that the Okinawan teacher knows and trusts; this can be a current student, peer, or trusted business associate.
Our conversation began: Sensei asked how I was, and I asked the same. We have started every conversation this way for decades, not as a matter of formality, but as an act of courtesy. “Pa-ka- dou ne? Genki?” (Parker, How are you? Healthy?” And it goes on. We talk about our families, our students, the weather, food, etc. This goes on for several minutes as we catch up on recent news to stay current on happenings on the other side of the world. With my teacher, it is not simply a master-disciple relationship; we are family. Sensei has often said that I am his second son, and of course, he is like a second dad to me in many ways. As he doesn’t have grandchildren of his own, Sensei has taken my son Kenji under his wing as his ‘adopted grandson’. He showers him with attention and gifts, and Kenji still doesn’t know what to think of it at only 10 years of age.
Eventually, we talk about training, we talk about our students and which ones are doing well, and others that need more attention. We speak of organizational duties, upcoming training events, and seminar scheduling for Sensei’s next visit to the USA, and we speak about growth and expansion goals within our organization. Nothing out of the ordinary, just regular karate topics, right? Yes, sort of. Sensei asked me to verify some information regarding an upcoming visit from some of my karate friends and their associates in the near future. He asked me who the visiting karate practitioners teachers were, and if their teacher was in Okinawa. “Okinawa wa chisai shima Pa-ka- .. Chanto shi-nai tou dame” (Okinawa is a small island, It’s bad if [we] don’t do the right thing). Sensei did not want to offend the visitors Okinawan teacher(s) by agreeing to meet and train with them, without their teacher’s approval. After our conversation, the details were straightened out, and we moved on with our conversation. Sensei told me about a group of senior practitioners that he was meeting with to discuss preservation of old karate, and he mentioned seeing a senpai from long ago. I found this peculiar, as Sensei and this other master had not trained in the same dojo for 30 years, yet Takamiyagi Sensei – A 75 year old master – still referred to him as his senpai. Respect and Courtesy. Two tenets of character that we should always remember and practice. I was reminded of this once again last night as I shared another conversation with my Sensei.