Lead the Japanese Way

When young, our parents and other adults caretakers lead us. As toddlers, their leadership takes a vital role in our development as well as our safety and well-being. Long ago, a Japanese friend of mine told me, “In Japan, we don’t say ‘no’ to kids.”

“Oh?” I prompted.

She said, “If a child is going to touch something that he shouldn’t, we don’t say, ‘No!’ Instead we go to the child and say, ‘Hey, let’s go over here and look at this.’ We lead him to something that’s appropriate to look at and touch.”

That hit me as such a sweet and caring way to protect as well as teach and lead kids. And it opens up so many other avenues. With this Japanese approach, you think about not only the child’s safety and avoiding inappropriate action, but you also consider that individual, and in what direction he will willingly go. What will he find interesting? What does he like to do? How can you give him an alternative that will occupy his attention?


We can use this approach to lead older kids too. “Instead of playing computer games for hours, join me in a trip to the park/beach/museum/mountains.”

This can help us as Karate instructors, to guide young students. “Instead of playing tag before class, let’s go get warmed up on the mat.”

We can redirect adult students who pick up a set of nunchaku before they are ready to learn weapons, “Hey, show me your empty-hand kata.”

We can use this approach with our spouse if they are putting on weight. Instead of, “You need to work out more.” We can say, “Hey, let’s go for a walk,” and do this regularly.


Gentle instructors will notice over the years that this approach doesn’t always work. It can be too subtle, particularly for American adults who have been raised on the “NO! Don’t touch that!” approach. But most adults appreciate the friendliness and equanimity of good leadership skills. And for teaching the few that don’t, we can always lead with the velvet glove first. When that doesn’t work, we can take off the glove to reveal the iron fist that we have developed as karate teachers.


This Japanese approach opens the door to lead with action and your own example and leading by example is the best way to lead. It is our responsibility to help teach young children. We can’t go wrong if we remember to redirect away from dangerous or inappropriate actions. Try your hand and lead with this approach the next time you see a kid, friend or co-worker going toward an undesired path. Invite them to walk a more appropriate path, side-by-side, with you.

By Jenifer Tull-Gauger teaching and leading karate

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