Newcomers to karate are sometimes intimidated by the unique etiquette of martial arts. They may not be familiar with the customs of karate training: When do you bow? How do you line up? When may you ask questions during training? What do you do if you are late?
As is common in any cultural groups, karate has a set of rules for proper and polite behavior. Traditionally, those rules were not written, and new karate students were expected to learn proper conduct by observing other students. (And, occasionally making mistakes and getting scolded for those). At the request of several students at our San Diego karate dojo, I put together this article to help martial artists get a jump start on karate etiquette.
A Word about Etiquette and Customs
One dictionary definition of etiquette is:
“the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.”
Virtually every group has etiquette. For example, the US Marine Corps, golf, and yoga each have their own etiquette. Etiquette at its base is having good manners as accepted by the group. Although one may think of etiquette as “snobbery” (“why should I care which fork I use?”), the fact is that people in the group will judge you by your conformance to the group’s etiquette.
Martial arts dojos vary in their adherence to etiquette. In this regards, our dojo, Full Potential Martial Arts in San Diego, is on the liberal side. Still, investing your time in developing proper karate etiquette is worthwhile. If you visit another dojo, attend a martial arts seminar, or travel to Asia, you will find that good etiquette will allow you to seamlessly integrate into the group, enabling you to focus your energy on the training. Having good karate etiquette is the same as knowing formal dining customs. You may not employ those when you are eating a hamburger at McDonald’s, but they are there for you to utilize when you visit your girlfriend/boyfriend’s parents for a formal holiday dinner.
Another word about Karate Etiquette
As Anko Itosu (pictured below), the father of modern day karate said:
“Martial Arts begins and ends with respect.”
A good principal is to have your behavior, both inside and outside the karate dojo, be guided by respect to others.
Proper Etiquette Prior to Training
Proper karate etiquette starts before training. You should be well groomed and clean for training, and wear acceptable attire — a clean gi. Grooming means, in particular, keeping your fingernails and toenails trimmed, so they don’t injure other people or break during training. If you have long hair, it should be tied up.
Plan to arrive at the dojo early – at least by 10 to 15 minutes. This is especially true if you are visiting a dojo as a guest. As one of my sensei liked to say:
“In martial arts, being on time is late.”
Once you arrive, prepare yourself for training. Take off any jewelry – watch, rings, earrings, necklaces, etc. Be sure to silence your cell phone too. Put on your gi, belt and any protective gear prescribed for the day (athletic cups, etc.). Some dojos will have a formal way of putting on the gi and belt. For example, students may sit down in seiza (classical kneeling position – more about this later) while putting their belt on. Watch around you, and “do as the locals.” Most dojos frown upon students wearing gis and belts outside the dojo (e.g., on a trip to the grocery store). It’s OK to wear gi pants and a t-shirt, but keep your belt off until you are in the dojo.
Once you have prepared yourself, help prepare the training hall for the class. If needed, sweep the floor, hang up heavy bags, set up mats, etc.
After you have prepared yourself, and helped prepare the dojo, do a quick warmup. This is really for your own benefit, as some dojos will jump immediately into the activities. Also, take this time to talk and socialize with other students. After all, the best part about being part of a karate dojo is having an “extended family” of martial arts brothers and sisters.
Showing Respect to Other Students
The dojo is a family. It is a high-trust environment that allows us to expand our comfort zone in a safe way. The student can try new things in the dojo and not be afraid to fail because they know that their dojo brothers and sisters will be supportive of them and keep them safe – both physically and emotionally. This enables learning and growth. This requires a deep level of mutual respect. You, the other students, and the sensei are all traveling the martial arts path together, helping each other grow and evolve.
The proper way to greet other karateka is by bowing (also called rei 礼 in Japanese). This is accomplished by putting your feet next to each other, heels together and toes out, hands by your side, and then bending at your hips to an angle of approximately 45 degrees. Keep your back straight and your gaze downward during the bow, and don’t let your palms travel down the legs. Pause in your bow for a moment before returning to an upright position. Don’t rush it.
While you are bowing, silently say in your mind “thank you.” This will help make your bow sincere. Have you had a colleague great you “hi, how are you?” as they are walking away from you? They are really only “going through the motions.” Make sure your bow in particular, and your karate etiquette in general, are sincere and come from your heart.
Bowing is also proper any time you partner up in class, at the beginning and end of each partner drill.
While bowing, many karateka follow the Japanese custom of saying Onegaishimasu (おねがいします) to each other. Onegaishimasu is one of those Japanese phrases that does not have a direct English translation. It roughly means “do me this favor.” In other dojos karateka may say “oss” or “osu” to each other while bowing. Depending on the customs of the dojo, a handshake, pat or hug may follow the formal bow.
As a side note, oss (押忍) is a compound word – a combination of 押 to push/suppress and 忍 to endure/persevere, i.e., to endure under pressure (the hard training). In some dojos, the term oss is also used as a general acknowledgement to an instruction (e.g., Instructor: “class, put on your sparring gear.” Class: “Oss Sensei”). This is technically incorrect. To acknowledge an instruction, use hai (はい) which means “yes,” as in “hai, sensei.” (Of course, if you are visiting a dojo, follow the “in Rome, behave as a Roman” rule, and if the dojo uses “Oss” to acknowledge instructions, follow their lead.)
During training you continue to show respect to other students by being sensitive to their needs. For example, if you are a strong and experienced karateka, and you are partnered with a smaller beginner as a new technique is taught, it is inappropriate to overwhelm the beginner with power and speed. When it is your turn to attack, be considerate and delivering the level of power and speed that will promote learning with your partner, while providing a challenge.
Showing Respect to Seniors
In karate, as in many Asian societies, there is an explicit social order. Students who started before you are called Senpai (先輩, and sometimes spelled sempai). This is again a compound word composed of sen, meaning before and, pai meaning fellow or buddy. Students who started after you are called Kohai (後輩). Students show respect to their senpai by following the senpai’s lead. (In sports such as sumo, kohai are also expected to perform menial tasks for the senpai, such as washing the senpai’s clothes. Luckily for you, this is not typically the case in most dojos.). Senpai show respect to their kohai by being compassionate and helpful to them.
An instructor is called a Sensei (先生), which literally means “person born before another.” Sensei is used as an honorific title in addressing teachers, doctors, lawyers, priests and other authority figures, including, believe it or not, politicians. There is some confusion about how to use the title sensei, and five variations exist. The Japanese custom is to put the title of a person after their last (sur) name. So if the instructor’s last name is “Miyagi,” the proper way to address him is “Miyagi Sensei.” Of course, in the west it is common to put titles before one’s name (e.g., Dr. Jones), and therefore some dojos in the west would address Miyagi as “Sensei Miyagi.” Yet a third (and forth) variation exists – a semi-formal way of addressing the instructor by combining their first name with the title sensei – “John Sensei,“ or “Sensei John.” Yet a fifth alternative exists, and that is to not use the title “sensei” at all, but rather address the instructor by his first or last name. If you are visiting a dojo, the safest way is to address the instructor simply is as “sensei.”
As part of proper karate etiquette, it is appropriate to acknowledge and show respect to the sensei. Upon meeting the sensei for the first time that day (or training), stop what you are doing, face the sensei, and bow to them. If class is already in progress (led, for example, by a senpai, or by a less senior instructor), and the sensei arrives, the instructor will stop the class, and then have the entire class face and bow to the sensei.
On the lighter side, here is an “example” from the movie Napoleon Dynamite, showing the proper bow to your sensei 😀
Formal class Opening and Closing
Always bow when you enter and leave the training area. Upon entering, face the training area and bow. Upon leaving, turn to face the training area, and bow.
The class will formally start in a lineup by rank – seiretsu (整列). The most senior student will set the line, and everyone else will line up to their left, by rank order. If two students have the same rank, the student who trained longer at the dojo is the senior (senpai). Multiple lines may form behind the first line.
If you are visiting a dojo and wearing your own belt (of course, you have already shown proper etiquette by talking to the instructor ahead of time, and getting their preference for the belt you should wear – white or your own belt), the humble thing to do is to line up as the least senior of the belt group. So if you are a black belt, you should line up to the left of all other black belts. This is because you don’t know the other students, and how they rank compared to you. Also be aware that other than white, brown and black, there can be little commonality between the colored belt systems in different dojos. While in your dojo a green belt may be senior to a purple belt, that may not be the case in the dojo you are visiting. This is yet another reason to talk to the instructor before you visit a new dojo.
The class will then bow to the front / shomen of the dojo (“shomen-ni-rei”), and then to the sensei (“sensei-ni-rei”). Some dojos will add other bows (e.g., to senior instructors, or to the group). The bows could be performed standing up or, more traditionally, in seiza – a kneeling position. For seiza, the entire class kneels down (usually starting with the sensei, then most senior student, and then going down the line) by bringing the left knee down first and then the right knee. Hands rest comfortably on the thighs. To bow in seiza, reach your left palm forward to the floor, then your right palm, and bow your head. Return to the kneeling position by reversing the motion.
There may also be a period of mediation (mokuso 黙想 which literally means “silent thoughts”) at the beginning and end of class. We will discuss the proper way to meditate in a separate article. Whether you meditate or not, you should strive to dedicate your martial arts training time to training, and put away any extraneous thoughts during class. This will maximize what you get back from your training. Calming your mind also teaches you to focus, all the while reducing your stress level.
When the series of bows completes, the sensei will rise, and then the rest of the class will rise.
The closing etiquette of a karate class is similar to the etiquette of its opening, with the addition of a possible recital of the dojo precepts (Dojo Kun) – the “rules” of training. Those may differ from style to style. For example, the Dojo Kun of Goju-Ryu Karate are the following:
- Hitotsu: Be humble and polite
- Hitotsu: Train considering your physical strength
- Hitotsu: Practice earnestly with creativity
- Hitotsu: Be calm and swift
- Hitotsu: Take care of your health
- Hitotsu: Live a plain life
- Hitotsu: Do not be too proud or modest
- Hitotsu: Continue your training with patience
If you are visiting a dojo for the first time, simply follow along. Often times, the Dojo Kun will also be displayed near the shomen (front) of the dojo.
After class closes with bows, the students will work together to clean up and tidy the training hall. There is another opportunity to socialize after class. (Thankfully, a discussion of martial arts training and alcohol consumption is beyond the scope of this article.)
During training, you should participate to the best of your abilities. Any behavior that calls attention to you is generally not encouraged. For example, horseplay, hitting the makiwara when it is not time to hit the makiwara, showing off, etc.
When the sensei instructs you should look at them, and refrain from talking. Also, you should be aware of your surroundings. Is your body blocking another student from being able to see the sensei? If so, move or kneel. Do not lean against walls or posts, as this can be considered very rude. In some dojos, it is customary for the entire class the kneel while the sensei instructs. The purpose of this is to provide an unobstructed view to all the students. Observe and follow the local customs.
There are different approaches for how students line up during class, e.g., for basics (kihon). Some dojos have students line up in rows by rank, with the most senior students toward the front of the dojo, and the beginners toward the very back of the dojo. In other dojos, you can line up wherever you prefer. Again, just be cognizant of other students. For example, if you are tall and wide, you may want to line up to the side or back, so you do not obscure the view of other students.
Likewise, there are different approaches for how students partner during class. In some cases, the sensei will prescribe the pairing or, more commonly, have students pair with similarly ranked partners. In others, students will be free to pair in any way they like. Yet in others (and that’s my personal preference as an instructor), students will rotate between partners during class.
As you partner up (and after you bow to each other), do your best to be a good partner. If you are the uke (受け – receiver of the technique), provide a good attack, or whatever technique is called for. Be appropriate to your partner. If it is easy for them, you can go faster and harder. If it is hard for them, go slower and softer. Likewise, if you are the tori (取りexecutor of the technique), be appropriate with your use of force and speed. Your partner’s safety should be your utmost concern.
Proper karate etiquette dictates that you should do your best to practice the technique exactly as the sensei taught it (even if you “think” you know a “better way”). Training with a spirit of humility and openness to learning new things is part of the life lessons of karate. As Shunryu Suzuki said:
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
The traditional time to ask questions is when the instructor asks “are there any questions?” Many instructors will also walk around class during partner work, and offer help. Of course, a question where your safety or the safety of your partner is at stake is appropriate at any time.
Almost without exception, correcting other students is not encouraged (unless, of course, that’s what the sensei asked you to do). This is especially true if you are visiting another dojo. To correct others indicates that you are certain you know your own technique is perfect and you are not acting to the other student’s detriment. Also, some students might take offense with being corrected, and dislike receiving corrections from their peers. The best action is usually to allow the other students to have their own idiosyncrasies until the sensei thinks the student is ready to change.
Dealing with Unexpected Situations During Training
Occasionally, you may need to fix or adjust your gi or belt during training. Unless it is a total emergency (e.g., your gi pants falling down to your knees, about to knock you down), wait for a proper time. Then, face the back of the dojo, away from the instructor and other students, and attend to your needs.
If you must take a break for some reason, bow in place, then walk to the entrance to the training area of the dojo and face the instructor. Wait for the instructor to acknowledge you, bow to them and leave the hall. There is nothing more concerning to an instructor to see a student rush away from the training floor during class. Of course, if you know you must leave training early, it is good karate etiquette to let the instructor know ahead of time.
What to do if you are Late
Sometimes (hopefully, rarely), you may be late for training. If you know you will be late, it is polite to contact the sensei ahead of time, and let them know. If unforeseen circumstances arose, and you arrive late, enter the dojo and bow. Warm up on your own (discretely, in the corner or back of the dojo). When you are properly warmed and ready, stand or kneel in seiza on the sideline. Wait for the sensei to acknowledge you. Bow to the sensei and (only then) you may join the class. It is not considered proper karate etiquette for a late student to simply jump in and join the group.
In a dojo “family,” etiquette allows for a high-trust environment that supports growth outside our comfort zone. The students are encouraged to try new things in the dojo because they know that their dojo brothers and sisters will be supportive of them and keep them safe.
If you ask yourself “is the behavior I am about to exhibit showing respect to the fellow students, the instructor, and the training hall?” your own answer will automatically guide you to the correct dojo behavior and etiquette. As the famous etiquette author Emily Post said:
“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feeling of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
In other words, if you are sincere and respectful in your actions, don’t sweat it if you messed up on a small etiquette item.
Etiquette is like other aspects in martial arts. By exercising discipline, patience and perseverance, you continue to improve yourself as a martial artist.
Keep on training!!!