The Japanese word for “person” is hito. It is written as the kanji illustrated above. When I did my doctorate, I studied the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. He argued for the importance of the material signifier—that is, the concrete marks on the page or the arrangement of pixels on a computer screen that signify a letter or a word. If we take up that approach, we can learn something important about the person who trains in karatedō.
Consider the English word I. This is not the same as person, but it does suggest the way the Western conception of the person is so individuated, so much about the self. Hence the enshrinement of self-esteem, and the Facebook popularity of selfies and pictures of one’s dinner. In the West, we are very concerned about our individual rights, about what we deserve, what we accomplish, what we have coming to us. The Lacanian examination of the signifier I notes immediately that it is identical, or nearly so, to 1. The singularity of I is the care of the self, taking care of number one.
The signifier for hito is different. Its left stroke is comparable to an italicized I, but it differs because it does not stand by itself. Instead, it is supported by a kind of reflection of itself. In karatedō, being a person is always being in relation to another: teacher to student, parent to child, brother to brother or sister to sister, friend to friend, karateka to karateka. Or even karateka to karatedō itself. Or the world. In karatedō, one is never alone. And the practice of karatedō, despite its sometimes image in the West, is not the pursuit of personal growth. It is not a care of the self, but rather a care of the important relationships you have, in the recognition of how we are supported by others and obligated to them.