Giri is a very typical and important rule for any person among the traditional Japanese society. There is no equivalent word in English for Giri. For a non-Japanese, to truly grasp its meaning, he has to deeply understand the uniqueness of Japanese culture.
The pursuit of duty, justice and correct action, is called giri.
There is nothing that influences more Japanese acts, thoughts, fame, human relationships, and even national confrontation as giri.
As a Budo teacher (martial arts and disciplines), I chose this typical term within the traditional Japanese culture to show the beauty, the educational values and the benefits of understanding and following the rules of Giri.
No other Japanese tradition has attracted so much interest from the rest of the world as Japanese Budo. I would dare estimate in millions the number of enthusiasts all over the world interested in its varied aspects from martial arts and self defense to a self improvement, physical, mental, spiritual, artistical and even as a sport. But the more popular it became, more and more beauty and important elements in it were forgotten or neglected. One of the most important is the giri. I wonder how many Budo students have heard of giri and how few follow its meaning.
Joining a dojo or school of martial arts implies much more than taking an ordinary course. A serious Budoka (martial art student or practitioner) should know the tradition of martial arts, their history and heritage, and especially, their goals and disciplines.
In classical Japan, learning a martial art was a sole privilege for the warrior class (buke). Each martial art school not only kept its techniques, strategy, and knowledge jealously secret, but was also strict about accepting students. It was impossible for any student to be accepted to a dojo unless he was strongly recommended as a serious and good-natured person, worthy of becoming a member of that school. For example, my Aikido school in Japan, The Korindo's System, continues with this costume till now and until the middle of the ninety fifty's any new member of Korindo had to sign with his blood loyalty and keeping the system's knowledge secret. Now days, almost any school of martial arts over the world is open to anybody. Many of them became very commercialized, concentrating in the physical parts only, abandoning the tradition, neglecting the mental, moral, and spiritual training and hardly dealing with the education of the individual. I mostly blame the Budo teachers, product of the present world, of the social and educational systems in which they have almost lost all ideals and values. Even in Japan, only few classical schools still keep that tradition and giri is slowly dying.
There are dojos which have their regulations written and hanged on the wall of the dojo, or printed paper for newly arrived students to receive upon joining the club. But there is nothing more important than the instructor teaching and educating, and above all his personal example.
In most armies, any soldier must salute higher ranks, but they too salute back in return, no matter what the difference in ranks is. A general will salute back even the lowest rank soldier. A proper salute is done with body erect and the two heels touching each other. The equivalent bowing in Budo is the same, being taught in all katas. It is performed with both heels joined together, and usually done with a 45° angle bent forward. It should be done with true respect and in a proper amount.
I remember in my youth that among the most valued and respected profession was the teacher. Now a days, to become a teacher is not a profession young men desire. Very few idealists, good and dedicated teachers still continue today, swimming against the current to fulfill the important mission of teaching and educating. There is a lack of appreciaction and respect by society which mostly bows to richness, but not to the true quality of the person or the importance the teacher has in bringing up the new generations.
A real Budo teacher is not a lecturer that passes information to his students. He teaches knowledge, passing long years of wisdom educating his students, strengthening and polishing them to become not only warriors but also better persons which can confront the difficulties of life not only with strength but with wisdom which will enrich their life and also contribute to society.
The Budo teacher gives himself and all his love to his students, treating them as if they were his own sons, strictly, jealously, but also with proudness and love. Do students understand what is expected from them? In my opinion, very little.
A beautiful real story told by one of my friends, has touched me deeply. This friend, while he was a young boy was treated very badly by his father who wanted his son to become a practical educated person. But this friend, preferred arts and poetry and suffered because of it many years of abuse, sometimes even being whipped with a belt by his father. Years passed, the son became a respected manager in some company and the father got old and very sick. The son stayed with his father, taking care of him as if the father himself was his son for a couple of years. The father with tears in his eyes said to his son. I never expected you to treat me with such love and care after how badly I treated you. But the son answered. No matter how you treated me, nicely or badly, you are my father and this is my duty, to take care of you with love when you are in need. This is what I call Giri.
There is another story about a famous Karatedo master in the 19th century in Okinawa named Ankoh Itosu who is considered to be the greatest master of the art in all times. When he became greater known and more famous than his teacher, also a very famous master of the art named the great Matsumura, he shared his income with his teacher who at that time was not financially well, and when his teacher turned 70 years old he returned to get classes from his old teacher. This is Giri.
Another Judo master teacher I met in Japan named Kashiwazaki Sensei, was very strict and tough with his students while training, but to my surprise, I saw several students eating lunch in his house daily, probably students that came from poor families with very limited budget to give their sons sufficient money for daily expenses. And the teacher's wife told me secretly that she also gave them pocket money without her husband knowing. Half of their salary was spent on helping his needy students. I will also call this Giri.
When I was a young Budo teacher in my thirties, I remember many times when other Budo students came to visit and asked to join my Dojo, I would always ask them whether their teacher knew they had come and if they had permission to learn here. I remember that even in one of my last visits to Japan, already in my fifties and a respectable Budo teacher, one of the 8th Dan Aikido masters, asked another of my teachers, also an 8th Dan, his permission for me to practice with his group. Both were my teachers in the same organization. It is unquestionable that a serious Budo student will not act without his teacher's approval in any matters that concern Budo. This is an unwritten rule which comes with the study of Budo and belongs to a serious Dojo and is based on the two basic principles of Bushido, (the ethical code of the Samurai), loyalty and honor.
I have never considered myself as an ideal person or perfect Budoka and I have probably made all the mistakes that can be done and will surely make more in the future. What I do know is that each time I have made a mistake, not only could I not sleep several nights, but I still continue to carry the shame. But the outcome of it was my growth, becoming a better person and using my position as a Budo teacher to educate my students and show them the right path. In many western countries, educating young people is a rather difficult task. Each one is a small general, each one thinks he is more clever and knows better than anybody else. Many of them are rebels and not disciplined and working with them is almost a daily fight. Many times I had tough clashes with my senior students. I guess that for some of them it is just rebelling against a strong personality teacher or father, or misunderstanding my way of teaching. But what is more important? Gaining the respect of your teacher by showing fidelity and doing the right thing, or rebelling and loosing the respect?
I remember another story while I was a young Budo student at the Kodokan in Tokyo. In one of the exams I was participating for Judo black belts, we showed our skills and knowledge in front of very respected high grade teachers headed by Kotani Sensei 9th Dan and a few more 7th and 8th Dan teachers. One of the foreigners demonstrating Kata made several mistakes. All of the 7th and 8th Dan examiners nodded their heads left to right, showing their disapproval. But seeing Kotani Sensei moving his head vertically with satisfaction of the Kata demonstration. Immediately made the teachers change their head nod movement from horizontal to vertical, showing their respect to the older and higher teacher. This is Giri.
In many occasions I received black belt Budoka visitors or new joined black belt students, some of them, in my opinion, not in the black belt level, but I never asked any of them to take it off and wear a white or color belt. This would be a total disrespect to their teacher and a humiliation to the student who believes he earned fairly his grade. The decision of replacing a formal belt can only be taken by the student himself.
In this article I have shared with the reader some stories, all of them real, and all of them showing simply and clearly the meaning of Giri. Giri has universal importance not only among the traditional Japanese, but also to any person that wants the world to become a better place to live in, a healthier society, and to personally walk high, with dignity and self respect with the knowledge of acting righteously. Acting right and paying respect should be done in the right measurement. Too little or too much is not respect. This is important for both sides to understand, the one who gives and the one who receives. Respect is the very fundamental basic rule in any martial art as well as in any kind of relation in society. It is, maybe, the highest and the most important principle in human life.
Today you are the child, but tomorrow you will be the father. Right now you are a Budo student, but later on you will be the teacher. Respecting others is respecting yourself. Doing the right thing is walking all your life with proudness and not with shame, being a noble person with high self esteem and admired by all.