Home > The Knowledge Pool > …More Wisdom from Sensei St. Hilaire

…More Wisdom from Sensei St. Hilaire

Sensei St. Hilaire shares yet another essay to those lucky enough to spy them on the internets…

I have many notes on what I feel the purpose behind dojo etiquette is but, I have not organized them just yet…I’ll get them on here soon enough!

So here you go again…another chunk of thought-provoking chocolate for your Budo – Hungry brains…


What is so damn important about dojo etiquette? Why do I have to bow? I don’t bow to anyone! What is the difference if I act a certain way or not, am quiet or not, am respectful or not? Does it mean I can’t defend myself? If I don’t bow lower than my senior – does that mean I won’t be able to kick his ass anyway? And, why do we have ranks anyway. If I can tap out a blue belt, why aren’t I a blue belt.

These are common types of questions in the West. The American mind has been brought up in a society that challenges authority, has been told anyone can be great or famous, and balks at the concept of discipline. We have a society that believes everyone is equal, and “I’m OK, You’re OK”. Basically we live in an “I don’t have to do it if I don’t want to do it” society. We relegate important issues which require action and decision to gray areas. We don’t like Black and White, Right and Wrong. We feel more comfortable with “politically correct” and “socially acceptable”. We discuss issues with our children instead of instructing our children. We’d rather be buddies than leaders. At the same time, many live under the delusion that they possess leadership qualities. This is what leads to the statements made in the first paragraph – which I have heard over and over again in various dojo settings. So why should we practice a certain etiquette in the dojo, and what are those etiquettes? I can answer the first question in one word; Samurai.
Samurai is an adverb that has become a noun. The word Samurai means “to serve”. It has the same connotation as those who “serve” in today’s military. They take up a higher cause, recognize superior authority, and act selflessly in defense of our nation. The Samurai did the same for his feudal lord. Among all those who “Serve”, whether the military, law enforcement, fire prevention, or other volunteer services, there is a common code of behavior.

This code of behavior is built from necessity. One must conduct oneself in a certain manner to remain part of the group; in order to “serve” an authority; in order to interact with each other; and in order to interact with the higher authority, and those who are enemies of said authority. With the Samurai, that code was called Bushido, or the Way of the Warrior. These codes of conduct – or etiquette pass along with the warrior methods themselves. There are clear reasons for this. Warrior methods are methods of war, killing, and defense. Knowledge of such dangerous means demand serious controls on the conduct of those who possess such knowledge.

There is a second level of etiquette having to do with warrior groups. These are actions necessary to gain entrance, maintain acceptance, establish place, and gain respect within the warrior group. This is common among all warrior groups, whether those of the Samurai, the martial art dojo or the military.First is recognition that you are attempting to gain entrance into a special closed group of very dangerous individuals. These individuals have spent years working hard to maintain their place in this group, and have gone through enormous amounts of pain and hardship in order to stay in this group. From all this work, they have gained nothing more than camaraderie, silent recognition, and self-confidence. Some groups give medals or trophies. But at the same time, these warriors realize these tokens are meaningless. It is only in battle that what they have learned matters. Their survival is their only meaningful trophy.

The next step is to maintain your newly earned acceptance. Even when you are in the group – you are not part of the group for a long time. You have to prove yourself. You have to show the appropriate respect, acknowledge the skill and knowledge of seniors, and train very, very hard. When you have done that for a long time, you will achieve a place in that group. It will not be a senior place – but you will be part of the clan. Worth spending time with, worth protecting in battle, an asset more than a liability. It is at this point that acting in the correct manner is most important. A breach reflects upon the seniors and their lack of leadership. Their seniors will come down very hard on them. Very hard. With years of hard work and perfect conduct – you may gain respect in the warrior group.

There are traditional etiquettes that have existed in the Japanese martial arts for hundreds of years. Each came from the necessity to maintain safety, hierarchy, battlefield competence, a good training structure, and proper attitude toward seniors. This last one is of utmost importance, because it was the seniors who made life and death decisions for the group in battle. In the dojo, these seniors still make life and death decisions. They know when you are about to do something dangerous to yourself or others. They know how to get you out of trouble. They have years of experience. Listening and following their commands (ok, we’ll call them suggestions) can make or break a real self-defense situation.

Here are the basic etiquettes that should be followed, accepted, and embraced.

1. There are seniors and there are juniors. There are no equals in the Dojo.

2 . If there was no sensei, there would be no group, he or she is the glue that holds the group together and sets the general tone. He or she sets the training schedule. He or she has gone through all the hardships the student has gone through or will go through. Thus, all etiquettes focus on the sensei, and their sensei (s)

3 . The dojo is the “way-place”. This is the room or the building or the spot where the knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. This place will always be special. It is a place where life changes take place. Thus the place itself deserves reverence.

THUS… Remove your shoes outside the dojo. You will spend alot of time on the mats, often with your face being ground into it. You do not want to have the bacteria, dirt , etc. that your shoes have stepped in during the day, to now be on the mat, and thus on you.Bow to the Kamiza and Sensei (if he is in the dojo when you enter). With this bow, say Onegashimasu (pronounced Oh-nay-gah-shee-mahs). This roughly means “please teach me”. This instantly establishes your place in the group. You have acknowledged your instructor and his ability to teach you something you did not know. You acknowledge those who spent their lives teaching your instructor. Thus you acklowledge the warrior spirit that has passed through the generations to you.

Clean the dojo. Before class starts, it is the students responsibility to make sure their training hall is dust free. Dust the walls, the pictures, the charts, etc. Then dust the mats. Again the practical purpose is to remove dust you may be breathing, and any dirt or dust from the mats before you work on them. Why does the student have to do this and not the owner of the dojo? Service. You are serving. You are serving the dojo, ensuring its long life. You are serving your fellow students, giving them a clean environment. Again, you are establishing your place in the group. If someone more senior than you is already cleaning – insist on taking over the cleaning from them. They have spent months or years cleaning, and establishing their place – now the junior must also do so. Only when you show care for your dojo and concern for others in the group, will you be accepted.

Be sure your training uniform is clean before every class. Hygiene in a place where sweatly bodies are in constant contact is of utmost importance. Viral, bacterial and fungal diseases are easily spread. Be sure your belt is tied tightly and correctly. Seniors look for attention to detail. When you show a lack of attention to detail, seniors will think you will also ignore detail in technique. That could cause injury in class, or death of yourself or your dojo mate in battle.
Bowing during class follows this methodology. Sensei will lead opening bows to the kamiza and instructors. Student bows should be slightly longer than those they bow toward. Bowing is a sign of respect. Everyone wants to receive respect. The fastest route to receiving respect is to give respect with conviction.

After sensei gives instruction, a short bow is necessary. This thanks him/her for the instruction, and also signals clear understanding of his training directions. One then bows to their partner. This acknowledges ones acceptance that you and your partner are about to engage in a dangerous activity. Each knows the other could mistakenly hurt them. Each knows the other could hurt them on purpose. Thus a symbol of mutual respect is necessary to set the correct tone in training. When you are finished working with a partner, you should bow as a sign of respectful thanks that your partner did not injure you.During training, one must suspect that they are under constant surveillance. Which, of course, they are. Sensei and/or Sempai are always watching. Watching your progression, technically and mentally. Watching your attitude and etiquette. They are looking for any flaw that tells them you should not be a trusted or respected member of their group. Remember this. I have personally, and more than once said to myself “I am not teaching that technique to that person, because they lack the mental control to use it safely.” You are under scrutiny. Even more so in a dojo that is run by a traditional Sensei who is not concerned with making a certain amount of money, or running a business. He picks and chooses who trains and who does not train. Student population is not of importance. Training hard and with precision and conviction shows the seniors and Sensei you are an asset to the warrior group. Laziness, and sloppy training tells them you are a liability. Someday their own life could be in your hands. They keep that in mind always. And that tells them who should stay and who should go.

The most difficult part of dojo etiquette is letting go of the ego. It is hard, when you may be a doctor, or a police chief, or a captain in the army, to come to a dojo and relinquish control. It is hard to accept other authority – when in other parts of your life you are the authority. Even if you do not hold a high place in society or a certain social group, it is difficult to accept that you are now under the authority of 1000 years of warriorship. Your sensei is a vessel of this authority. And you must accept this. With training, and work, and understanding, and skill, you too may someday be a sensei. This, of course, never releases you from the On (debt) you owe your instructor, and does not ever make you equal. Your students will be in the same boat.

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