Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The chicken or the egg?

The answer is both.

Taking a look at the two kanji on the right hand side of this picture will answer this question.

Together, they are "sottaku."

Yesterday, one of the fellow teachers at my high school saw me practicing my daily kanji (Chinese characters in Japanese writing), and said he had a homework assignment for me. Surprised and curiously I said sure, and he then instructed me to go to the front of the school where there was a large paper with kanji on it; I was to try and read it.

I was optimistic about the assignment until I saw the kanji. My homework was written in beautiful but inelligible calligraphy. I reported back and said "zenzen wakkannai" (I have no idea.) He laughed, but quickly took a serious tone and explained very carefully the meaning of these two kanji that greet the students and teachers of Sakurai High School every morning. Below I will display what he wrote to me in quotations. I think my own attempts at this point would only dillute it's meaning.

The top right character can be read as, "From the inside of an egg, a chick bird is going out of egg, pecking the egg from inside."

The bottom right character can be read as, "A mother bird is giving hints to a baby bird with knocking the egg to show the direction and strength."

"Further meaning:

Sottaku is a noun and a metaphor, which shows the good relationship between an educator and an educatee.

An educator gives not so many hints to the educatee while an educatee is yearning. A mother bird never breaks the egg for a chick, because the chick needs the self confidence and independence. In the same way, an educator never solves the problem, nor gives the solution because the educatee needs the self belief. This word, also shows us that, the quality, the amount, timing of hints are important. Sottaku is the ideal state between teachers and students."

This was given to me written in these exact words from a math teacher, who has spent some time in the States, studied English for a long time, and is the head of the kendo club at school. I speak to him daily, but like many people we see and work with everyday, I had no idea that he would give me such information.

The fact that so much meaning can be drawn from only two Chinese characters is absolutley amazing, and a testament to their importance for students of Japanese language.

What comes to my mind right now when I ponder this kanji is the difference between teaching methods between American and Japanese martial artists. To generalize, Americans often seem to want and expect all the objective information and answers to their questions immediately upon being taught, irregardless of time spent training. I don't think this is necessarily bad, and if there's knowledge, it should be free to everyone, right? Maybe to generalize on the Japanese side, students are expected to obey completely without asking questions, and teachers teach by simply performing the techniques on the students.

Perhaps dwelling somewhere between these extremes, there is an eggshell to be carefully cracked.


  1. Ah but do the Japanese break a new technique down step-by-step? I found that my Chinese influenced sifu taught Chin Na -- and especially Kung Fu -- in the latter manner you describe.

    This was a hard adjustment for me because my tae kwon do curriculum was broken down step-by-step. At the mid or high belt ranks they just started to remove steps and before you knew it you were doing something that flowed.

    I hope not all aikido schools just throw you in! I've set a target aikido start date of August. We'll see how my dojo visits go. I've not got that many to choose from in these here parts, so, I may end up in a school that's similar to my now defunct kung fu school!

  2. I think you're right, somewhere in between. Great analogy.

    Mostly I think because there are three kind of learners: people who learn from seeing, those who learn from hearing and those who learn from feeling it. We all have certain amounts of all three, but we're usually dominant in one. So for me, a mix of all three is often just right for everyone: explain it, show it, and then do it (with the most emphasis on the DOING, of course).

    And from what I understand the human mind can really only hold a finite number of things at once, like 3 or so, and once you get to 4 or 5, you have to let one thing go to take on a new thing. With that in mind, I think (speaking from both student and teaching perspectives) giving about two or three pointers at a time for someone to work on for a while is sufficient. A little hint here, a hint there. After that, just DO.

  3. B: I hope your Aikido school works out. I think especially in Aikido and especially in the States there is such a wide variety of styles to teach. I happen to find one that suits me, which isn't some prick sensei who justs rails on you the whole time, or someone talking about ki the whole time without doing anything physically legitimate. Good luck.

    Sean: I think that's the beauty of martial arts is that it is such a holistic learning experience. I also strongly believe we all learn different, and that teaching should be somewhat customized to each student. But in the end all good students will end up at the same goal, legitimate technique.