Japanese Terminology

Japanese Terminology


Is it “cool” to use Japanese terms in the dojo?  Does it make our practice seem more authentic?  As with the bowing practices I mentioned in my article on that subject, there are some people who believe in discarding this part of our training traditions completely and others who feel that tradition must be maintained, even if it is impractical.

Most ballet instructors still use the French terminology for all the techniques and a few of the explanations.  In music, Italian is used often to describe the flow and intensity of the music.  Certain languages are used often in the field of medicine, no matter where it is being discussed.  And in Japan, terminology in baseball and other sports that made their way from the West are largely English.  So that karate uses Japanese for so many terms used in the dojo may not be so strange.

When “karate” made its way from China to Okinawa, before it was really known as “karate” at all, the Okinawans used some of the Chinese names for techniques and kata and then gradually changed these to local Okinawan terms.  The same thing happened after karate made its way from Okinawa to mainland Japan.  So why is it taking those in the West so long to adapt and rename techniques and other training terms to their own native languages?

While it is interesting to some people to study the history of their art, especially for those who do not understand the Japanese language, why do they hold onto the past in this manner?

I can speak and read Japanese.  So, for me, the Japanese terminology is quite understandable.  But although we say the Dojo Kun in Japanese at my dojo, we also say it in English.  Apart from a few of my students who have lived in Japan as well, nobody understands the Japanese version.  I use some Japanese terminology for technique names when teaching.  But I almost always include a description of the technique in English as well.  Memorizing all the technique names in Japanese would be useful at my dojo, but it is certainly not a requirement.

I do not have a major issue with the idea that some people use the Japanese terms even though they do not often understand the actual meanings.  But I do see a problem with mispronunciation and, much more so, misinterpretation.  I know of many Japanese instructors who have listened to some Westerner rattle off “Japanese” that was completely incomprehensible.  I have heard Japanese people laugh when they heard Westerners reciting the Dojo Kun in so-called “Japanese”.  But, even worse, I have seen the shivers go up their spines as they heard people use completely incorrect terminology.

Recently, for example, I heard someone describe a stance as “fudodachi” that was actually a relatively high sparring stance.  If this person knew what the term meant, he would never have considered using it, even if he had heard others say it mistakenly for that stance.

The Japanese terminology can be very difficult to follow even for Japanese people.  So non-Japanese karate practitioners should not feel like lesser people for not knowing the language.  I remember a class that Nakayama Sensei was teaching at the JKA Honbu Dojo in Tokyo in early 1986. When Sensei rattled off a string of techniques that were unfamiliar to them, most of the Instructor Trainees and even some who had been training for 20+ years had to look for guidance to the foreigners who had been training regularly at Nakayama Sensei’s private Hoitsugan Dojo.  How many times have you heard the term oigeri?  It is a valid term and makes sense.  But it is simply not in common usage, at least among most Shotokan instructors.

Another term that is used incorrectly all over the West is sempaiSempai means “senior” but is strictly a relative term.  That means that a senior instructor should not be calling a very junior dojo member sempai unless it is obvious that the instructor is implying in an explanation to more junior students that this senior student is their senior.  This can be confusing.   And because it can be so confusing, I would suggest not using such terms if you do not understand the implications thoroughly.  There is nothing wrong, for example, with referring to someone as “Mr. Takahashi”, “Mrs. Miller” or “Ms. Chen” (unless those are not their names! ).  For more on the subject of sensei/sempai/kohai/seito relationships, please see my July 2001 article.

If you do not understand the Japanese terminology completely and are not confident that you are pronouncing and applying it correctly, my recommendation is that you do not use it.  And if the others in the dojo that you are speaking with do not understand either, then it is certainly inappropriate.  I think there are good reasons to keep Japanese words and terms in the dojo.  But what is said should be understood.  If you are the instructor, and that means getting help with pronunciation and explaining the Japanese words in your native tongue, then I suggest you do that, in order to help everyone better understand.

Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published May 2004)