15. Etiquette and Principles

Here is a thought provoking question which is very appropriate for beginner student as well as advanced shugyo. It was posed by Scott Krohne and has caused me to reflect for several weeks before attempting to answer such a modern-world question.

“Another topic that perhaps you could say a few words on is that of protocol. We are somewhere between feudal Japan and modern America. This can be confusing at times. Bowing before entering the dojo seems a clear and simple form of etiquette. However, many “rules” are more obscure. I hope I don’t offend others by my ignorant actions, but sometimes it is difficult to know where to draw the line. (e.g. what I shouldn’t say to my sempai, where exactly I should line up without offending anyone, through what framework can we show respect to others yet maintain dignity as an individual and avoid obsequiousness and self deprecation.)”

The etiquette and protocol of American dojo has been drastically reduced from that of modern Japan or Okinawa and even more reduced than that of ancient feudal Japan or Okinawa. But there are remnants of the protocol still in place. Each of these remnants has an underlying principle which is valuable to modern America.

Let’s take the two protocols of bowing before entering the dojo and cleaning the dojo before each class even when the dojo is already clean. These two traditions have to do with the proper respect for and preparation for training. When we enter the dojo we bow to show respect. For that one instant, at least in those who choose to take that instant, we recognize our own reverence for the place which we are lucky enough to have to train in. Hopefully, the bow brings us into an interaction with the dojo; that interaction is one of respect. We actively choose to bow in order to express our willingness to interact at the dojo. When we cross the threshold we are in a different type of place. This place is one of dangerous techniques and intense concentration. It is not the playground. It is not the workplace. It is the dojo; the place where the way of martial arts is studied.

Just after entering the dojo we begin to clean it. This is totally irrelevant as to how clean or dirty it is. We clean the dojo in order to interact with the dojo and to prepare ourselves for that interaction. It makes little difference what we clean; we clean more of ourselves than the dojo. We look to see what needs to be done and do it so as to interact with the place to study the way.

In both of these situations we are thrown into interaction with the dojo and self-preparation for training. Those are two important principles which most martial artists of Japan and Okinawa want to uphold. As I see training and the principles underlying training I see great value in both of these previously mentioned actions and both of these principles.

Now there is another etiquette which is not observed at any Aoinagi Karate dojo just because none of the dojo are permanent structures dedicated only to karate practice. This etiquette is the lighting of incense in the tokumon (a place in the dojo reserved for reverence and gently decorated to enhance the “feeling” of the dojo). Our dojo do not even have tokumon, so it is difficult for us to light incense in the tokumon. The lighting of incense is another way to interact with the dojo and would be a good etiquette, but it is impractical in the present conditions where we train. So we don’t do it, and we don’t fret about the fact that we don’t do it.

We do not observe other Japanese/Okinawan martial arts etiquette for other reasons. Take, for example, heppan. Heppan is a blood oath. It was (is) required in some schools. The student is required to pierce his left forearm with the point of a sword or knife blade and draw enough blood to write an oath never to publicly exhibit anything that he learns at the dojo. We do not do a heppan. The principle underlying it is secrecy. We do not hold to that principle. We have public demonstrations of the art from time to time. We have our own tournaments and attend the tournaments of other schools. Such activities would be against the heppan. There is no sense to having a heppan, so we don’t. What is of no value by virtue of an unimportant underlying principle, is deleted.

So what about the issue of the vertical hierarchy, the seiretsu or line-up at the dojo? We do encourage a recognition of those who have been studying martial arts longer than others. This is not meant in any way to reflect on what is perceived as one person being “better” than another person. But there is a valuable principle here which has nothing to do with a person’s own value.

Within human nature there is a natural tendency for a group to form dominant leaders. The dominant person almost always tries to assert his/her dominance over the other individuals. When a dominant person begins to train at the dojo it is not long until he/she tries to establish dominance. It usually occurs in small groups first, then it expands until the person tries to establish dominance over the whole group. It is just their nature.

The Japanese/Okinawans recognized this tendency within their dojo many centuries ago. In an effort to prevent a dominant-personality with little experience in martial arts from blasting their way thru ranks to establish a POORER quality martial art than what was previously taught, a vertical hierarchy was established based upon proficiency and experience. The sempai (more experienced and more proficient student) was placed at the head of the hierarchy. The kohai (less experienced but perhaps more dominance seeking) individual was required to render due respect to the art by accepting that the sempai was more experienced.

Pressure is placed on both ends of this relationship. The sempai who is very submissive may want to slide away unnoticed and give in to the pressure placed on him/her by the more dominant kohai. And the dominant kohai may want to express his/her dominance by retorts, reprimands, criticisms or any one of a long list of dominant behaviors. Neither wants to be in their position. They both want something different than what they have. But the tradition is there for a good reason.

It is probable that the more experienced sempai knows more about what is going on in martial arts techniques, philosophy and etiquette than does the kohai, even if the kohai thinks he/she knows more. I can hardly believe that a very submissive second degree black belt at Aoinagi would know less about Pinan Shodan than a very dominant white belt. But yet the essence of the need for dominance may drive the white belt to criticise the black belt and or his/her technique or understanding. This is not good for the art, for learning, for the black belt or for those listening to the white belt criticise the black belt. And it is definitely not good for the white belt who should be learning rather than criticizing.

So, there is a really good reason (and others) for the seiretsu (line-up order, vertical hierarchy). Unfortunately, like all human endeavors it may get abused or distorted and fail to function properly. Let’s say that a dominant type individual stays around long enough to become a high ranking sempai. Now, the dominant person may become abusive or derogatory of the kohai. This is not what is best. The abusive or derogatory sempai need to be corrected by his/her sempai. If they don’t or can’t then the Sensei will correct him, with expulsion if necessary.

The vertical hierarchy is meant to resemble a group of siblings. The elder sibling stands to the right of the younger sibling. Both respect each other, but the elder sibling usually has more responsibility in family matters and more privileges in personal matters than does the younger sibling. The sempai are like elder siblings and want to offer direction, encouragement, positive energy and be willing to help. The kohai are like younger siblings and want to listen, learn and be appreciative.

BUT, in the essence of martial arts training there is no self-depreciation, and there should be no sempai who criticises (other than positively) any kohai. Nor should there be any kohai who criticises any sempai. Martial arts are meant to strengthen the individual, build his/her confidence and self-esteem, and teach him/her to stand up for what they believe in. That includes standing up to the sempai when the need arises. That includes standing up to the sensei when the need arises. That is martial arts.

I guess I could say a whole lot more, Scott, but it would be at the risk of boring some of the students. I hope I have answered your question. If not let me know. If any of you have further questions about the etiquette, seiretsu, sempai, kohai, self-esteem, etc just send me an e-mail…