The Long Read: Etiquette in the martial arts

The subject of this long read has been inspired by the comments of a few members in recent weeks regarding the "correct" way to go about particular actions within the dojo context. What this comes down to is a discussion and understanding of reiho, or etiquette, within the broader context of the martial arts, the specific practices within our dojo, and the particular forms observed within individual disciplines. Two things that tend to cause angst are, firstly, the specific forms and processes that constitute expected behaviour, and, secondly, how to “cope” in circumstances where people do things differently. I will deal with them by initially discussing the why of etiquette before looking more closely at the how.

Etiquette is the cornerstone of maintaining any civil and polite society and acts as a social lubricant. Any social circumstance requires established and expected rules for behaviour. While the exact details for what passes as polite behaviour is highly dependent on social context, there is a universal human need to be respected sufficient that the expected relationship between two or more people is followed. It gives us a sense of belonging, and of being in the “right” of things more generally. This sense of being “right” is particularly important given that it is really difficult to know the world truly from an external perspective. Trying to get inside someone else’s head to understand their perspective is incredibly hard work. Doable, but always influenced by your own theory of mind — in other words, it is circumscribed by our own limits to how we think, feel, and act within the social context. It is a philosophical conundrum that has occupied Western philosophy over the centuries, and is featured in the Buddhist statement regarding life's illusory nature.

Etiquette seeps into this gap in our theory of mind by providing a rulebook for how we should expect people to behave. The more tight knit and homogeneous the group, the clearer those rules are. In Japan, quite arguably a highly homogeneous society, there are very clear expectations of etiquette that are instilled from a very early age and that permeate all aspects of Japanese society. Reducing to the realm of Japanese martial arts, the broader rules are further distilled and applied to the ritualised practices that keep people safe physically, emotionally and socially. Certainty provides security. However, the reason why these forms of behaviour are often romanticised and fetishized within a Western context is our gap in understanding the essential “Japaneseness” of those practices. Instead, these ritualised behaviours become attached to our own sense of self and an identity we would like to aspire to. Apocrypha become important signifiers of our own identity, of belonging to a group identity that we can recognise due to the observation of particular behaviour at the appointed time. And change to the way things “must” to be done becomes an existential threat.

So how do we sort all of this out into a clear set of behaviours for our daily training? The first is to properly recognise that we are not, for instance, (almost without exception) Japanese, or indigenous members of any of the other host nationalities that have developed the practices we engage in. So the closest we can come is a respectful homage to the host culture. We cannot authentically be Japanese by simply doing things in a Japanese manner. However, this is not to suggest that we cannot, or should not, try to understand how to do those things properly. Indeed, in Seitei Iaido, a large component of the formal assessment for grading is the correct way to handle yourself and the sword. Just bowing in or out incorrectly can be sufficient to fail a grading. And many a sensei will say that the way you handle yourself in the days and weeks leading up to grading is of equal importance to the physical demonstration on the day itself.

David Lowey’s excellent book In the Dojo provides some important observations of the way things are done in Japan, and why they are done in that manner. Much of what is practised in Japanese martial arts is heavily influenced by the warp and weft of Shinto and Zen Buddhism that runs through Japanese society. This includes the Zen principle of ritualization and simplification of action being an objective in of itself. One thing to observe though is that while there are some very strong themes of behaviour related to a Japanese mindset, the specifics within individual disciplines vary considerably. For instance in disciplines such as Shinto Muso Ryu Jodo and Kyokushin Karate, the line up at the start of class requires the students to face the ritual “high seat” of shomen at the start and end of class, and the teacher sits opposite them, often with his or her back to shomen. By contrast, Kendo and the Jujutsu that we practice at the Club have shomen off to one side and sensei and deshi working across the face of the shomen line.

There are, of course, many common elements between the disciplines: Be on time for class; if you are going to be late or absent, let the instructor know so that they can adjust their teaching plan; make sure that both you and your uniform are clean and presentable — every time not just for “special occasions”; if you are running late, get yourself changed and ready to start as quickly as possible, wait at the edge of the training space, and do not enter it until you have been acknowledged by the instructor and signalled to enter; if late, insert yourself in the most convenient slot for the class, not necessarily where you habitually locate yourself.

These expectations are about the safety of participants in the class, taking responsibility for your decision to train (or not train), and demonstration of humility and respect for everyone else in the class. All of these are contained in the student manuals and codes of conduct that members sign off on each year when they (re)join. And yet there is still confusion and anxiety around how to exactly perform the actions that signify membership, as if the protective power of ritual is only fully realised if done with meticulous precision. Which is true to some extent. If someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time, serious accidents have been know to happen.

So the hard and fast rules, there are mercifully few. They include:

  1. Be aware of your surroundings and observant of what others are doing
  2. Always carefully listen to the person in control of the space and diligently attempt to do what they ask of you
  3. Acknowledge the person you are working with and provide your full attention to the task at hand.
  4. Concentrate on what you are doing rather than what someone else is doing. It is the instructor’s role to observe and correct.
  5. Remember to engage the “beginners mindset” of mushin regardless of how experienced you are or how well you think you know something.

That way, when you find yourself in the “foreign country” or another dojo or under the tutelage of a senior sensei at a seminar, you can have the flexibility to do things the way they have been asked to be done, not how you think they “ought” be done.

So remember to read, think, ask, act— and attend to the foundation of politeness: humility, compassion and, overall, a desire for precision.