Different perspectives of etiquette


After studying at Windsong Dojo for a number of years, a friend of mine moved to another city. Hoping to continue his study of Aikido, he attended a class at a local dojo. Right off the bat, several things unsettled him.

It should be noted that Windsong Dojo, when compared to many martial art dojos, is a relatively casual one. My friend assumed that this new dojo would operate similarly, having a passing knowledge of the dojo cho to begin with. He was, apparently, mistaken.

First off, he was corrected when he walked across the mat before class on his way to the dressing rooms. He was then told his belt was tied improperly. And when he attempted to address the chief instructor by his first name, the man didn't answer (the other students informed my friend that he must use the term "sensei" when addressing the chief instructor).

So, my friend, having come from a much more relaxed atmosphere, and himself being a fairly relaxed individual, evidently didn't care for the prevailing attitude in that particular school (though I will admit that I heard this story second hand) and never went back.

I can see both sides. As an American, I can see how such strict adherence to protocol, and the resulting consternation when anyone trespasses it, might seem, well, a little uptight. To someone like my friend, such a school might seem a bit austere, and such behavior might translate as an expression of an over-inflated ego.

However, in the Japanese culture, these sorts of traditions and classes or rank structuring run deeply throughout their entire society and have for centuries (although some might say the youth of today are far more Western in their behavior than traditional). I would imagine that, those participants in a Japanese school would view behavior like my friends as careless and inconsiderate, walking in and acting as if he owned the place! Whether or not that's actually true is really beside the point. It's a matter of interpretation.

Now, in all fairness, the dojo cho is not Japanese (and neither was his sensei). But even still, they have, in their school, opted to follow a traditional course in how they handle the matter of reishiki, or etiquette; that is certainly their prerogative, and I believe, should be respected.

That being said, did they handle the new-comer's indiscretions in the best possible way? Perhaps not; or, perhaps my friend was far too offended to give them the chance (as I said before, I can't really know for sure). I suppose that, in the end, it comes down to one thing: which is more important, the observance of proper etiquette or the retention of a new student?

Of course, some might point out that the reaction of a potential student to these sorts of admonishments could serve as a sort of litmus test to determine whether that person is suited for that dojo, or the martial arts in general. Perhaps.

I don't entirely know. I've never run a dojo, nor have I trained in any others, so I hesitate to make any sort of judgment on the matter. But I do think it's interesting (because perhaps someday I will). On one hand, I appreciate the value of etiquette and all that it offers. On the other, I also understand that the American mind-set is a radically different one than that of the Japanese, and perhaps some effort should be made to make sure the intent behind our behavior isn't lost in translation.

Over all, I value the human being, the spirit of the individual who walks through the door. They may not be ideally suited for my school, or even my art, or any art at all. But they are human, after all. We all are, and that alone deserves a certain amount of respect, wherever we may be. I suspect there is a way to follow in tradition but still care for and nurture the newcomer. I also believe in respecting the way someone chooses to run their dojo (or their private life for that matter) even if I may not agree with it. "When in Rome," as they say, "do as the Romans do."

The etiquette stands, after all, as a means of showing reverence and respect, not just to a high-ranking individual, but to the art, to the school itself, and to each other. That respect goes both ways, not just from student to teacher but from teacher to student. I believe in honor, but also patience (though I may often fall short of both). I believe in softness and temperance, as well as in self-discipline and reverence.

To paraphrase Jigoru Kano, "You, me shine together." The question I believe should be, when all is said and done, does the etiquette observed help in that pursuit, or hinder it?

And when shopping for a new dojo, you might bare in mind the advice of Paul Linden Sensei: "Go and visit several dojos and see how people treat each other. If you want to be treated like the people there are treated (either by other students or by the sensei of the dojo) it's probably the place for you."

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