A Japanese karate sensei vs a non-Japanese karate sensei 日本人の先生対外国人の先生
Now, comparing a Japanese sensei and a non-Japanese sensei can be a sensitive and controversial subject. In fact, I consider this comparison almost meaningless as each sensei is different and their qualifications vary vastly. In most cases, it does not matter where they come from.
Having said that I have my personal opinion which I am happy to share here. I decided to write this essay because I have received a few inquiries that were something like this. “Dear sensei, I need your help. I live in xxx (most of the time, from a European country). I have been looking for a karate dojo but I cannot find one with a Japanese sensei. What can I do?”
First of all, we must ask if a Japanese sensei is absolutely necessary when you first learn karate. I can firmly say it is not necessary. I am very much aware there is a sentiment and natural want for a Japanese sensei by a person who wants to start karate training. You automatically believe or want to believe that a Japanese sensei must be an “excellent” instructor and better than a non-Japanese one.
As a matter of fact, there are a few negative sides of having a Japanese sensei when you start your karate training. The Japanese people are known to have poor command of the English language. I cannot say this about other languages such as Spanish, German, French, etc. so my statement here may not apply to all the Japanese sensei who reside outside of Japan. I say this only from my experience with the Japanese sensei in the USA. Secondly, if a certain Japanese sensei is very senior and has many students, then you, as a beginner, may not be able to be directly taught by the Japanese sensei. You may get your training under the assistant (of course, non-Japanese) instructors for many months and possibly a few years.
If a senior Japanese sensei operates a dojo in or near your town or city, you can consider joining there. If not, finding a local instructor is not a problem as long as you choose a qualified one. I am not going to describe how to find a qualified instructor here. Nowadays, we have many excellent internet tools to examine the people’s background and their organizations, thus you can easily do a thorough search on a targeted instructor and/or his dojo/organization.
After meeting many non-Japanese sensei in my lifetime, I must tell you that there are many who are truly well qualified. As a matter of fact, a few are even better than some of the Japanese instructors I know.
Once you become an advanced level of Nidan or above, you may want to search for a senior Japanese instructor or to have some training in Japan to advance yourself even further. This can be a political and a sensitive move as your non-Japanese sensei may be offended and not bless your move. You must make your own decision on this matter. You must think carefully when you make your final decision, you must decide on what is the best for your karate and its development. Karate is a total package that includes not only the karate techniques but also the Japanese culture and its martial arts teaching. Therefore, a senior Japanese instructor tends to have better qualification than a non-Japanese sensei. This particular qualification is something, unfortunately, a non-Japanese instructor would lack, not due to his fault, but since he has never lived in Japan.
At the same time, you must realize that there are possibly a few downsides you may discover with a Japanese sensei. Besides the language ability, I find many Japanese instructors tend to be very political. Making a trip to Japan and training there can be very expensive as you can easily expect. Training there for one week or just a weekend seminar by a senior Japanese sensei, can be beneficial and possibly also fun. At this stage, it is totally up to the individual to decide on what is the best direction they need to take, as they continue their karate journey. I am aware that my advice here may not be too helpful. I apologize for this, but the situation and an environment of an individual practitioner differs so much, it is almost impossible to tell what is best for him.
My final advice for the practitioners who are very serious with their karate training. The most important sensei is yourself. If you are committed and determined to improve, more than half of your challenge is being met. The second important sensei is who you will follow in your daily training. The higher that sensei is (I am referring to his knowledge and not his dan rank), it is very possible that you can also develop higher. Also, remember that karate is a whole package which include not only the karate skills but also the martial arts culture and teaching. In addition, you must never forget that the character of the instructor is extremely important. If he is not the kind of person you wish to imitate, then even if he is a karate expert, he may not be your kind of sensei. You need to think what kind of person you wish to be and your sensei must be a model that you are proud to follow.
I hope you are lucky and have found such a sensei. He or she does not need to be Japanese, but must be someone you can trust and believe you can follow in their steps in your daily life. If you have not found such a person, I hope you will be determined to look for one even if it would take you several years. In Japan we have two old teachings.
One teaching is「三年勤め学ばんよりは、三年師を選ぶべし」, “Sannen tsutome manaban yoriha, sannen shi wo erabubeshi”. This means if you want to excel in budo one needs to focus one’s time on looking for an excellent sensei even if it takes three years, rather than training by yourself during that period.
The other teaching is 「師は必要な時に現われる」, “Shi ha hitsuyona tokini arawareru”. This is my favorite teaching as it means “a proper teacher will appear when the time is matured”. Isn’t this wonderful? I personally believe this teaching is true. I can say this as it has indeed happened several times in my martial arts journey during the past more than fifty years. If you have not already found a wonderful teacher and if you are having a difficulty in finding one, have faith and do not give up. I am sure you will come across with one in the future but you must keep your eyes open.
Once again I must tell you that this essay is based on my personal opinions and beliefs. What do you think? Let me hear from you and tell me about your sensei.