Dojo Etiquette: More Than Just Good Manners
By Nicholas Wright

In almost all martial dojos there are rules of behavior. In modern Americanized dojos these rules could be as simple as removing your shoes and bringing your hands together as you step on the mat, followed by repeating that particular school's credo with the rest of the students before practice begins. At the other end of the spectrum are the schools that are more traditional in their approach. Black Sword Aikido is a traditional dojo. Classes are formally opened and closed with a short ceremony in Japanese. There is a much stronger hierarchy among students and how lower and higher rank students approach each other and their instructor or sensei. Commands and techniques are usually given in their original Japanese. Even the dojo itself is constructed to be as traditionally accurate as possible. Incoming students see all these traditional trappings and behaviors and are perhaps impressed enough to join. Older students accept it as the modus operandi and become more familiar with the rules of behavior, helping newer students to learn them. It is rare that any student new or old asks why? Why do we bow? What do those Japanese words mean in English? Why don't we speak in English? Such questions are not insulting. In fact, any question that leads to greater understanding should never be considered offensive, as long as it is politely asked. Still, students do not always ask. Part of the training in Black Sword Aikido is greater awareness. In that spirit, here are some answers to those unasked questions to foster a greater spirit of awareness.

Why Japanese words? Why not? We are studying a Japanese martial art. We have no trouble remembering our Beujolais and our Medocs when it comes to French wines. We still measure distance in inches, feet, and miles even though there are for more accurate and rational units of measurement being used world wide. We eat burritos, not meat filled shells of soft, thin, unleavened corn bread. We enjoy Egg Foo Yung, not eggs, onions, pork, and mushrooms mixed together and fried up. And we practice Ikkyo, not technique number one. Or Bumble Bee Bores The Flowers, not grabbing your opponents fingers, twisting them in such a way as to cause him great physical distress, and then stuffing them under his arm and behind his back to incapacitate him. Having read that, a certain brevity of point seems to shout loudly in favor of the original form.

The names used are traditional, meaning they bring with them a strong sense of the culture that gave them birth and fostered their development toward their present form. To take these techniques and assign to them names of our own would be to shake hands with the close kin of plagiarism. The English or Americans, did not spend hundreds of years developing these techniques so why should we name them? When Medoc and Burritos and Moo Goo Gaipan first came into our lexicon, they probably sounded absurd when we tried to pronounce them and were difficult to remember. But now they are part of our language and our culture. These Japanese techniques and the names that describe them are only recent immigrants to our country and are still in the awkward stage of still seeming very foreign to our "American" understanding. Yet who is to say that Irimi Nage and Sumi Otoshi won't become as common as "right cross" and "kick in the pants" are to us today? Although they are sometimes difficult to remember and fall prey to "they all sound the same" mentality, learning them can only add greater depth to our character and to our knowledge, and increase our awareness of the beauty of languages other than our own. To generalize: the harder something is to learn the greater its value, and most things are hard to learn in the beginning.

When sensei demonstrates a technique, students sit quietly and do not interrupt. If they do have a question, they wait until the demonstration is complete before asking for permission to speak. When the lesson is complete or a question has been answered or a technique has been redemonstrated for the benefit of less perceptive students, the students bow to sensei. Bowing is more than good manners.

Western culture has made the mistake of equating the Japanese bow to the Western hand shake. They are comparable, but not equal. The bow means much, much more. Historically they come from similar roots: an extension of the right hand to grasp someone else's ensured that both men were unarmed and not reaching for their sword or pistol. Yes, they could learn to use their left, but we are dealing with generalisms here. Similarly, the Japanese bow exposed the neck to your opponent and was performed from a sitting, or seiza, position--a difficult position to attack from. Where the historical significance of the handshake has been lost to western culture, the bow still retains much of its traditional significance, and especially in the martial arts dojo where the art of combat is a major area of study.

We bow to show our respect and trust of our sensei and his teachings. To be fully traditional we should ensure that when we bow to him, our head is lower than his. Here, respect also means more than the word would connote in western culture. Traditionally, it is a great honor to be accepted to a dojo and be taught the techniques and wisdom of that particular school. America is a society that has thrived on its spirit of capitalism. An unfortunate side effect of that great spirit has been that we, as a culture, tend to expect anything as long as we throw enough money in the right places or faces. The greatest Japanese dojos were not to be bought. Their techniques were secret and only to be shared with those students the sensei deemed worthy. Even once accepted to a school, it could be years before a student was fully initiated to all the secrets of the school's arts.

To that end, it was considered a privilege to be accepted and taught in these schools. The students lived at the school and cared for it as their own home. Anything that cast the school in a poor light, cast the students in a bad light. Conversely, anything that cast a student in a bad light cast the school in a bad light. The school was seen as an extension of themselves. They cared for it, cleaned it, and watched it grow as they watched, cleaned, and cared for the same in themselves. A sensei asking a student to sweep the floor or hang a striking board was not giving that student a menial task, but entrusting him to make his dojo, and himself, just a little bit better. The greatest dojos with the greatest spirits were venerable indeed and held positions of great esteem. As westerners perceive Oxford or Arabs, Damascus, the Japanese revered their greatest schools. To accept this new perception of a dojo is to open a door on much greater understanding.

White belt, blue belt, black belt: what do they mean? Simply, they are the badges of rank. The higher a student's or teacher's rank, the greater the respect shown to them. Why? It is more than the fact that on any given day they can kick your butt. The respect shown to rank is much more than that. It is recognition of those who have "put their time in." Higher ranks have studied longer, have (hopefully) reached a higher level of understanding about the art they study. They are allies and teachers and guardians of the tradition they strive to understand. There is a popular legend in martial arts circles of the venerable old teacher that tries to demonstrate his techniques on an unwilling student from another school. The student falls poorly, escapes his holds, and dodges his atemi. He walks off the mat laughing...until he sees the faces of the venerable old teacher's strong young students. As they advanced on the impertinent student, the old teacher stepped in front of him and chastised his students for being compelled to violence for such a little reason. The impertinent student immediately fell to his knees and bowed to the venerable old teacher. His technique may have begun to falter in his old age, but the respect accorded to him was all he needed to fight his battles.

However, before that warm feeling spread throughout your body: traditionally, the lower ranks sit closest to the door in a dojo. The reason is that if the dojo is under attack, they are more expendable and should be first thrown at the enemy. Yet another reason to study hard and improve in your art.

Classes open and close with a very strict format. Sensei advances to the front of the class and bows to O sensei, showing his respect for the teacher who created the path we follow. He then claps, to wake both our dormant spirits, and the ones that will hopefully infuse us with a greater understanding of the art we are about to practice. He turns to us and the sempai, or senior student, leads the class in a bow with the words "Shomen ni rei." Loosely translated the senior student is inviting us to show our respect for the art we have the privilege to learn and the sensei who has decided we are worthy to teach. At the end of the class, students repeat this show of respect. Those students who have really been brushing up on their Japanese will add "Domo arigato, sensei," or "Thank you, teacher." True over achievers will say, "Domo arigato gozaimashita, sensei." Translation: "Teacher thank you for teaching me." These short ceremonies reinforce the traditional roots of Black Sword Aikido. They show thanks for the privilege of learning.

Being taught a traditional martial art in a traditional manner requires more work, but the return is enormous. There is more to Black Sword Aikido than throws, punches, and joint locks. It carries with it a culture and history of its own that adds a complete new dimension to the art. There is significance and reason to the ceremonies we perform and the etiquette we respect. It allows us to perceive the art from an entirely new perspective and that perspective is a much less selfish one. It may feel foreign at first, it is. But as we become more comfortable with it, it proves to be a much more rewarding one. Truly, we do not choose the art, but it chooses us. Perhaps because in our own unique way we are searchers and looking for more than just self-defense.