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Hai!

Eizan Ryu Jujitsu was founded in the Bronx in the 1960s, and the founder of the system was an American (though he had trained in martial arts in Japan), so we are not a traditional Japanese Jujitsu style. We do use a lot of Japanese terminology, as it is a simple way of referring to particular techniques, and though we are not a very formal dojo, we do maintain some of the formalities that one would find in a Japanese dojo. These practices help us maintain an atmosphere of orderly, focused learning in our classes, and also help to remind us that we are doing something serious (but of course, very fun!). Having specific forms of address for senior students and instructors, set ways of starting and ending our work with a partner, particular ways of sitting and standing during class – all of these are ways of creating a safe and efficient learning environment, and of showing respect for the art and for those with whom we train.One term that new students learn as soon as they start training with us is “Hai,” which is the way they are expected to respond to an instruction or correction from an instructor or senior student. Many karate styles use the phrase “Osu” in the same manner, and both of those words serve an important role in the dojo.


The seemingly obvious reason for saying “Hai!” when responding to one’s instructor, and the reason that can make it controversial in some corners of the martial arts world, is to demonstrate that the student respects the instructor. In the military, soldiers are taught to say “Yes, sir/ma’am” or “Aye aye, sir/ma’am” when an officer tells them something, but outside of that context, such prescribed signifiers of respect are not common in the United States. This can make folks new to the martial arts wonder why they are expected to conform to formal protocols that may seem weirdly feudal or, at the very least, are not the usual ways of interacting.


But the practice of students being expected to respond with “Hai” when they are being taught or asked to do something in class actually has a very practical purpose. Yes, as an instructor, I like acknowledgement that what I have said has been heard and taken seriously. But it’s not all about making me feel fancy. More importantly, I want my students to learn as efficiently as possible, to make the best progress they can, and asking them to follow this custom helps with that.


If someone is teaching a martial art, they are, one hopes, very knowledgeable about that art. And if they are a good teacher, they work hard to dispense that knowledge in the most useful ways. When I look at a student working, I can usually see various things that could be improved – sometimes, especially with new students, dozens of things – and it is my job to figure out which of those things to point out and how.


I try to say the thing that will make the most difference in the student’s work and also the thing that they can actually do at that stage of their training. There is no point in instructing someone to change a tiny detail that they can not really even see yet, much less change, so I try to give them corrections and instructions that are within their capabilities. It has taken me forty years of teaching to get good at making these determinations, so when I make a correction, I am bringing a lot of experience to trying to say the exact thing that is needed.


Often, however, a student has a lot of things going on in their mind while they are working. They may be anxious, frustrated, discouraged. They may think their partner is being too uncooperative or too rough. They may have a “good excuse” for doing the technique the way they are doing it, or have all sorts of ideas of their own about what they need to do differently.


None of that is helpful, however. Those negative emotions will only hinder their learning, and they need to learn to work with all different partners without complaint. And while we encourage students to take ownership of their work, to learn to correct themselves when the instructor is not right there, it can be difficult for a person new to the training in particular to determine what is most important for them to fix at that moment.


That is where “Hai!” comes in. It is a way for a student to clear their mind of negative feelings, of exhaustion, of self-doubt, of excuses, and of the overwhelming list of things they need to improve. The instructor’s job is to give instruction in a clear and useful manner, and the student’s job is to focus on that instruction. The habit of responding with “Hai!” helps students look clearly at what they have been told without distraction.


Of course, we always welcome questions about techniques, and we are always willing to clarify our instructions, or to  explain the “why” of the corrections we give. But first, we ask that students trust the instructor or senior student enough to do their best to do what they are being asked to do, with an open and willing mind. When a student makes eye contact and says a crisp “Hai!” in response to corrections or even just reminders, they are putting themselves in the state of mind to learn efficiently, they are developing a spirit of determination, and they are staying aware that the dojo is a special place.


(In the photo we see a student taking serious instruction in the middle of his black belt test. He said "Hai!")

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Adi Zukerman
Adi Zukerman
Jun 16

Hai!

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