Shite Waki [pronounced “she-teh wah-key”] literally means “main character, [not] supporting character” — and is an allegorical reference to the roles we play both in our own life, and in the lives of others, and the importance of being the main character in our own life, following a script that we ourselves created and refined.
Characters in Noh
The two concepts — shite (シテ) and waki (ワキ) come from noh plays — highly stylized traditional Japanese dramas that have strict rules for how dramas are constructed and reenacted. Shite is the main character, and waki is the term used for supporting characters. In fact, shite literally means the “doing hand” or the “moving hand” and waki means “side” — as in, something on the side. All of this is the figurative background of shite waki — but as you might imagine, the true meaning of this four-kanji phrase is found at a much more complex level.
We are often thrust into many roles in both our own lives and in the lives of others. Understandably, we play a supporting role in the lives of those close to us — albeit in many cases, an important one. For some, we are a parent, for others a best friend, for others still, a life partner. It is important that we recognize the roles we play in the lives of others, and commit ourselves to fulfilling those roles to the best of our abilities and spirit.
But in our own life, as counterintuitive as it might sound, we sometimes are thrust into a supporting role, rather than the main role. We are somehow placed in a position where we are following someone else’s script, rather than being the prime mover in our own script. Shite Waki reminds us that we must strive to define and then refine our performance as the main character in our lives.
Being the Star of Your Own Play
What does being “the main character” entail? It means being strongly committed to the passions in our lives — the people, the things, the causes, the roles that we have — and it means remaining focused on them.
It also means being aware of the reasons and priorities reflected by the actions we take, so that they are firmly originated by our script, as opposed to the script written for us by others (society at-large, our school, our parents, our friends, etc.), no matter how well-meaning they might be.
Playing the “shite” role in our life isn’t about ignoring others, or about down-playing the need to play all the other “waki” roles in our lives.
It does, however, mean that we must carefully and consistently ensure that we are being true to the role that we have chosen for ourselves — the main character role, and whatever that means for us.
The Karateka as the Star of the Play
Ultimately, as karateka, we train to take on the "starring" role in life, and in the lives of those around us. We spend a part of our training as kyu-belt karateka learning how to lead and command. As dan-level blackbelts, we then take on leadership roles in the dojo, but not just within the physical confines of the dojo floor.
Rather, as karateka we are training to take on leadership roles in the greater community around us – in our families, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and sometimes even more.
As karateka, we are training to take on, and fulfill, the starring role.
Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered by Sensei in San Rafael, California on 2 September 2014, and then again at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 20 September 2022 at a special Blackbelt Week Meditation/Shodo Class, and then once more at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo and via Livestream on 23 September 2022.