Functional Politeness & Humility

In March of 2011, I was walking through the Asakusa district of Tokyo with my longtime karate teacher, John Hamilton Sensei, and my good friend, Yamaguchi Masahiro Sensei. Moving about with these 2 very senior martial artists, I was walking a little taller than usual.

We happened upon a medium-sized shop that seemed to deal in Japanese swords and other related items. We entered, and we each went our own way to see what the store had to offer. Soon, I found myself standing next to a very grandfatherly-looking gentlemen, who said to me in English, “Are you interested in Japanese swords?” “Great,” I thought, “another Japanese old guy who wants to practice his English!” But I try to be polite to others, regardless of their motivation or their station in life, so I said, “Yes, I am.” Since it seemed rude to just leave it there, just to be polite, I asked him, “How about you? What brings you to this store?” He said, “Oh, I’m the 19th headmaster of Kashima Shin-ryu.” I immediately said, “Seki Sensei! I’m sorry that I didn’t recognize you!” He responded quite graciously, and I and my companions ended up sitting down to tea and a very informative 30-minute chat with him.

Late in December of 2015, we, the members of the Hiroshima Isshin-kai, gathered for keiko-osame, or the final practice of the year. When we got to the gymnasium where practice was to take place, there was an iaido ikkyu test in progress, and we quietly changed into our keiko-gi and waited.

In the interval between the iaido exam and our practice, one of the gentlemen who had tested came up to me and, given what I was wearing, asked, “So, are you interested in Japanese budo?” In what must have been no more than 2 seconds, what ran through my head was, “Seriously?! I’ve been doing budo for about 40 years, am godan in jodo, and have published budo-related academic papers and translations. You, on the other hand, would seem to be a beginner, given the test that you just took. But because I’m a foreigner, you ask me if I’m ‘interested in budo???’ How insolent can you be?!!” What came out of my mouth, however, was, “Yes, I am.”

Unbeknownst to me, my teacher, Kurogo Genji, ZNKR jodo hachidan and Shindo Muso-ryu menkyo, was standing nearby, and had been listening to my conversation. When I turned to walk away from the gentleman who had spoken to me, Kurogo Sensei was standing right in front of me. He said, “THAT was the right answer!”

So, where am I going with these 2 tales? Well, aside from the fact that I just think that they are interesting stories, I believe that they are evidence of what I might call “the utility of politeness & humility.” By that, I mean to say that, aside from the moral imperative for these 2 traits that many budoka might feel, acting out of them can also serve to benefit oneself in very real ways.

In my chance meeting with Seki Sensei, it was my attempt to avoid being rude that led to a rather unimaginable opportunity to chat with him. With my conversation with the newly-minted ikkyu iado practitioner, my attempt to remain humble in dealing with a stranger kept me from lowering my teacher’s estimation of me as a sincere student of his art.

Many budoka see the moral value of staying humble and being polite to others, but even those who might not be so concerned with “ningen keisei” should realize that politeness and humility are also very functional traits.

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