What does Oyakata (親方) mean?

I was in the workshop last night talking to Mr. Tanaka about the, “Apprentice Life.”  We talk about it a lot because that is the usual answer when I have to do something, or not do something because I’m an apprentice.  As we were talking, a topic came up that really surprised me.

For those that don’t know, I refer to Mr. Tanaka as, “Oyakata.”  I never call him Mr. Tanaka, or Tanaka-san, or even Sensei.  Bonsai apprentices just don’t do that.  As we talked, he looks at me and ask, “Do you know what Oyakata means?”  I’ll have to admit that it actually caught me by surprised because I never really had to explain what it meant to anybody.  My understanding was that a Oyakata is someone that is somewhere between Boss and God.  I told Mr. Tanaka my definition and he shakes his head and said his usual, “Noooo.”.  He then broke it down this way:

Oya(親) means, “parent”

kata(方) mean, “the way”

Put those two together and it comes out to, “The way of the parent.” (親方)

Mr. Tanaka says that a Oyakata isn’t a all powerful person.  An Oyakata is more of  a father figure (a provider).  I sat there and thought about it for awhile because the explination turned out to be very simple to what I thought it meant.  This was one of those, “Ohhhhhh,” moments.  As I thought about it more it made very much sense for me to refer to Mr. Tanaka as a Oyakata, because he does take care of me like a father and I feel like I’m apart of the family.

When I think of Oyakata as a father figure, it kind of made me feel more at ease with my apprenticeship.  Perhaps it’s because this was another misconception that I had about being an apprentice in Japan that turned out not to be true.  Perhaps it’s comforting because I’ve always had a good relationship with my own father.  I’m not sure how to explain the feeling of relief that I have knowing the real definition of Oyakata.  It did get enough of my attention though to write a post about it and share it with everybody.

I later looked up the word and found that the definition of Oyakata is, “Master.”  I like the root meaning better.  :o)

Thanks for reading.

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3 thoughts on “What does Oyakata (親方) mean?

  1. jeremiah lee says:

    I like that explanation. Peter I’m glad you are not a slave:)

  2. Peter, thanks for the explanation.

  3. John Romano says:

    Hi Peter,
    Yes I had the same ‘ah ha’ moment back in Shizuoka in 2005 when I heard Mario Komsta always referring to Mr. Urushibata as Oyakata and Mario explained the meaning to me. It makes apprenticeship and the sensei’s responsibility to teach and care for there ‘student’ in a more positive light – better than ‘slave / master’ anyway ;-0.
    John Romano

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