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"Etiquette Doesn't Matter, It's All Indoctrination"

What is the purpose of etiquette and why does it matter that we use certain words more often than others, act in certain ways instead of others, and so on? How do we take charge of our relationships on and off the mat towards the ultimate goal of daily Aikido training: Masagatsu Agatsu.

Belief Influences Behavior.

Everyone is familiar with this pop psychology reference. It's a pretty obvious idea that we all behave in ways that reflect our beliefs. Behaviors of course mean anything we take past the thought of it including actions, words, gestures, etc...

In Aikido, traveling from dojo to dojo, one might come to realize that there are so many variations on etiquette, and of course, the repercussions associated with making a mistake. It would be an easy thing to decide that one person's approach is the right or wrong one, but in reality, it is the underlying current of the purpose of etiquette that matters most: mutual respect.

For example (we can stick with Japan since Aikido is a traditional Japanese martial art): in Japan we have a number of suffixes that are often added to a person's name when speaking to or about them.

Kun or Chan: often denotes extreme familiarity, often someone your own age that you are friends with, even romantically.

San: the golden standard for "Mr." and its equivalents, where respect is shown (in Judo for example, calling someone -san is a show of great respect).

Sama: one step up from san, someone who commands great respect, often in places of authority over you.

Sempai/Kohai: these are usually taken together because the two individuals who represent these terms are linked. In our dojo for example, a sempai is anyone who has been training longer than you and a kohai is, of course, the opposite. However, there is tremendous responsibility placed on this coupling in a dojo, as sempai is responsible for ensuring that kohai is practicing safely, growing while they train together, and that they share in the daily/weekly/monthly/yearly practice. Kohai of course, is the one who looks up to the sempai as a guide when it comes to technique, etiquette, and their overall dojo journey.

NOTE: It's critical to understand that this relationship is not determined by default and always true in our dojo, as these "lifelong assignations" often breed complacency and a sense of "built-in leadership" on the part of sempai that kohai must simply accept - this of course, is nonsensical. To continue being a sempai, one must consistently demonstrate an eagerness to support, encourage, and build-up kohai. A kohai must always be vigilant in honoring the sempai/kohai relationship, that a sempai does not take advantage of it - if they do - this is no sempai, but a pretender who has simply paid their dues longer than you.

Sensei: this is a delicate one for a number of reasons. While it's important to keep the Japanese application of the word Sensei in perspective, we must also recognize that for most of us, we are not Japanese and never will be; and that's OKAY. In Japan, "sensei" is a term used for anyone you are learning from or coming to for expertise. For example: in Japan, school teachers, doctors, and of course martial arts instructors, are called sensei.

Behavior Influences Belief.

The corollary to the first concept and often missed and woefully undervalued. We often talk about this idea when it comes to diets, fitness, or any other routine we are trying to establish. How we behave, as a result of our beliefs, of course reinforces those beliefs. Often, however, we are in situations, whether by our own determination, or by another's influence, to behave in a way that is inconsistent with our beliefs (even if only slightly).

For example: you move from one city to another and join a new dojo. Well, in your previous dojo, etiquette might have dictated that you bow when entering the dojo, remove your shoes, and proceed to change for class. In your new dojo, it could be that the chief instructor has an office by the front door, and it is expected that you also bow in the direction of the office before changing for class (for those who think this is "over the top" - many share this belief, but it is not a new invention).

To some extent we must leave the door open for those who have succumbed to their ego and expect this level of "respect" simply because they feel they've "earned it". These are often the same instructors who feel slighted when beginners make mistakes with etiquette. In the same way that being "sempai" is earned and must be earned consistently and repeatedly throughout one's lifetime of training, so too, do instructors have that responsibility.

Keep in mind that this is a very basic overview of this concept and while it's possible to create some incredible transformations through "behavior influences belief", we are all too familiar with those who start fitness routines, only to find themselves back on the couch a week later. It's important to be patient with ourselves as we attempt to change our behaviors, so that we allow our beliefs to begin to reflect those behaviors we want to see in our lives.

So What Is Our Dojo Etiquette? And Why Is It So?

Entering/Exiting the Dojo: It's expected that when you enter the dojo, you bow towards the shomen (often referred to as kamiza) - this is the head of the dojo where we display the founder of Aikido and other notable figures. We show respect to them because they are the reason, in one way or another, for the existence of the dojo, and therefore, us having a place to train.

Taking Shoes Off / No Shoes on the Mat: This one is a biggy, but is not for any respect reasons. It's a health concern. We are expected to keep our feet clean, but our shoes take the brunt of our abuse throughout the day. Taking them off ensures a clean space for everyone.

Bowing On/Off the Mat: This is a show of respect to the training space, that we are appreciative of the fact that the mat is there for us to fall on safely, that our fellow Aikidoka share in the respect for this space and the desire to train safely and with joy.

Bell Signals Line Up: In our dojo, thanks to a gracious sempai of mine, we have a conical bell that we ring to signal the start of class and the need to line up. In our dojo, it holds no other real significance, whether spiritually or otherwise, except that it makes a pleasant sound (as opposed to a clap of the hands) and gives the dojo a pleasing atmosphere in which to reside and train.

Lining Up In Rank Order: This one is dicey and can easily create some issues if presented incorrectly. In the same way that sempai/kohai relationships are not defined, but fluid and earned repeatedly - lining up in rank order has less to do with those of a higher rank, and everything to do with beginners. Lining up in rank order simply gives an indication to beginners of who has spent longer training and as a result, the sample you have to choose from if you need help with anything from etiquette, to technique, etc... on the mat.

Bowing Together Towards Shomen: We do this for the same reason that we bow towards the shomen when entering and exiting the dojo.

Bowing To Start Class (instructor and students): This is another one that sometimes becomes problematic. Oftentimes because the instructor is sitting in front of the class, it's taken to mean that we are bowing to the instructor and the instructor is receiving that bow. This is true for some martial arts, but not in our dojo. In fact, when we bow, instructor and students simultaneously say: "Onegaishimasu!" which literally translates to "Please" - and that's it. The connotation here is that we are saying something along the lines of: "Please, let's train together with safety and joy today!". Notice that there is no expectation built in that students are expected to "honor their master" or some such feudal nonsense. The respect for the teacher by the students is earned, each time he/she steps on the tatami to lead class. This relationship naturally ebbs and flows with the relative commitment of the student and instructor, and often impact each other without either being aware. This is why it is crucial that instructors maintain a consistent training routine of their own, both physical and Aiki.

Bowing to Each Other: This one is a simple homage to Japanese culture where instead of shaking hands, bumping fists, or some other routine, we show respect as we begin practice by bowing. Again, there is no expectation of fealty or built-in subservience. Mutual respect, plain and simple.

Bowing At the End of Class: The pattern of bowing at the beginning and end of class is the same, but reversed. In this case, instructor and students simultaneously say: "Domo Arigato Gozaimasu!", which literally means "Thank You Very Much!" in a formal way. So again, we see no built-in fealty or subservience, only mutual respect and gratitude for an hour (or more) spent hard at work.

So, does etiquette matter? A big resounding YES! But is it implicit simply because you are higher ranked, training longer, or spent your hard earned money to own your own school? And is one etiquette better or more correct than another? It's a question we must all answer for ourselves. For me and my dojo, the expectation I aim to set, is that etiquette is based on the idea that we earn the respect we are given, each and every day we step on the tatami. Instructor or student, etiquette should never engender implicit respect that isn't consistently earned, no matter how long you've been training, your rank, position, or for any other reason. This breeds laziness on the part of students and teachers alike.


As always, with everything written, it is to be first enjoyed (hopefully). If there is something that you like, feel free to adopt it. If not, feel free to discard it.

My only and continued wish is that you continue your training, consistently across time, towards that goal of Masagatsu Agatsu that we all seek.

With love and respect,

See you on the mat!

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