Martial Heart Series: The Concept of Giri

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favourite parts about martial arts (and running as well) is that it is a mostly solitary endeavour. Unless one competes in unison kata, it is an art taken up and enacted alone. No cheerleaders or team captains or deadweight team mates. It is the overachiever’s dream: to work alone and take all the credit for it.

(Basically, I just want to be the Hermione Granger of karate.)


Except. Except.

Except no one ever gets anywhere alone. Or at least, not meaningfully. For every one who gets to black belt, for everyone who stays long enough to grade, there is an entire structure designed to help them get there. It’s easy to be solipsistic in karate – after all, when it comes to a grading, the karate-ka stands alone. You are responsible for your kata, and your training, and your extra-curricular studies around the art. Is it not written that a Sensei can only show you the door: you must walk through it yourself? (Though a bridge may be a better metaphor).

There’s a word that’s worth knowing. Giri. It is obligation and responsibility. It is integral to Japanese society, and therefore appears within Japanese and Okinawan martial arts. It is ‘to serve one’s superiors with a self-sacrificing devotion’. To the Western mind, a mind obsessed with individual achievement and the slaying of giants (why else is the David and Goliath metaphor still so pernicious?) such a term might seem servile and pathetic. Giri has its origins in feudal Japan, a society that had incredibly static social strata. In what was once an agricultural society where people put down roots and built homes, there were ‘giri books’, registers of families’ obligations to one another. Since no one really left, the debts had to paid. This wouldn’t have worked in a migrant/hunter society. The giri tradition continued into the samurai mode of service, in which suicide and a placid acceptance of death are seen as appropriate services to others. After all, samurai means ‘servant of love’. (The samurai tended to use seken-tei, which is social appearance and along the lines of saving face or matching to others. But that’s a blog post for another day.)

Of course, to Westerners, this has mostly been watered down to “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die. ”


Admittedly, the idea of such servitude and obligation rankles your average Western martial artist. In much popular culture and media, it is the sidekick who is reviled, the Igor and the henchman and the maidservant. No one wants to be in service to another. And I agree – too much servility leads to a frail mind and weak heart. I think service given willingly and with meaningful understanding can enrich a person, but servitude can shackle and cripple the spirit.

As we discussed in black belt grading prep last night, giri should be willingly given for it to mean anything. No one should be forced into helping their dojo (even though, so often, dojos often desperately need the help of their older students) because it leads to resentment. But I have found great refuge and education in assisting my instructors, both past and present. Being chairperson for two martial arts clubs at Rhodes University gave me an anchor and direction in a town that remains notorious for thwarting even the best intentions. Helping younger students now highlights the flaws in my own karate and teaches me to have patience, something I had always thought happened to other people.

And I come back to where I started: no martial artist really accomplishes as much as they think they do purely on their own merit. Whether it is the federation that supports its instructors with consistent training by bringing in instructors from around the world, the sempai that took the time to train you on a Sunday morning on a rugby field when the dojo was closed, the junior that asks the questions that you hadn’t considered, or the Sensei who works tirelessly to keep the dojo open so that you can train with others – no one becomes a martial artist alone.

So, giri is obligation, but it is dynamic and concessionary and nuanced. And as mentioned in this fascinating essay by Masayuki Yoshida, “there is no explicit request by one party that the other act under an obligation to do, or refrain from doing, something. Indeed a large part of giri is for parties so obliged to act in advance of the need arising to ask for any particular favour”.

No martial artist is an island, and nor should we be. It remains a privilege that we can train and learn with others, to grow with them and learn from them. Giri is simply an extension of your training through contribution to the dojo and those who have given their time and knowledge willingly. So say thank you to your sensei, and offer to help out with the junior classes, or stay behind to help tidy up. It’s maybe not as exciting as doing some chishi training, but it’ll do your martial heart a world of good.

One thought on “Martial Heart Series: The Concept of Giri

  1. Geoff says:

    We’re more ninjo-oriented in the West, I feel. Not always a bad thing, we’re different societies, but we could use more giri in and out of the dojo.

    We lack the names and familiarity with some of the concepts the Japanese have ‘to hand’ as it were, but we are subject to the same pressures.

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