Not an article about etiquette

I am not a fan of rules and regulations. In fact, I’m the person who hates to be told what to do, (who would have thought that?) and will actively do the opposite in many cases. I’d like to say I’ve gotten better over the years. One of the areas where I do strongly believe in rules however is in martial arts, up to a point.

In all honesty when I attended my first class I liked the rules, the way people lined up and the lack of ambiguity that followed. I had somewhere to stand and classes started the same way so with time there was less and less to worry about and I could concentrate simply on the vast amount of things that I needed to learn. Life was simple. We were instilled with the mantra that good etiquette started before we arrived to the dojo, long nails were to be cut and a clean “gi” (uniform) were expected, more so, we were to put our heard and soul into training. When we started training with Sensei Kase, we heard that also had a message for instructors, “If you teach Karate, you have to practice regularly yourself. You have to practice harder and more than your students. If you have practised for long enough, Karate is inside you and you can train wherever you are”. This was many many years before the pandemic.

By the time that I was grading in our home honbu dojo (I was a member of a satellite club, senior gradings were held in the head dojo) in Cork, the need to follow the etiquette was made clear. More senior grades were encouraged to help beginners and this came to a crescendo during gradings and gasshukus. During one grading I remember being in a group where about 6 of us were up for brown belt. This was seen as a huge jump in our organisation at the time. Arriving at the dojo we were told that all aspects of our behaviour was being graded and that would include the class before the grading. To my childish brain this was actually enthralling. I loved the structure and the fact that I had a chance to impress not only in my grading but also in the class. I knew that I had an issue with nerves so I took the class as an opportunity to impress. In truth, I was ridiculously nervous throughout but the class started in the same manner as always, albeit in a different dojo and with a different Sensei. Once we got going, well it just seemed to be…comfortable. At one point I made a huge mistake, in something that I knew so well. I was really disappointed with myself. I had practised and practised and in the middle of the grading I ended up facing the wrong direction at the end of an exercise. Everyone sat down and I was given a “last chance” to prove myself. Legs shaking and barely able to hold myself together I started again, this time determined to get through and end up facing the right direction so, I set off with determination and made a Kiai on every single move. Shattered at the end and not knowing if I had done enough to pass I joined my seated colleagues in seiza and with my lungs heaving. As I sat down the purple belts were up and odd in number. Sensei asked for a person to act as partner. Of course I jumped up and when my partner made a few mistakes whispered the moves and we were through.

Our association had a tradition of bringing senior grades from other styles on a regular basis and these gasshukus, held in a hall (in the Lee Maltings) were the pinnacle of opportunities as seen from our young Karate eyes. Our Sensei would coach us on the weeks up to the Gasshuku on how to behave, things to look out for and under no circumstances were we to mess about. As junior attendees we were often given jobs and/or people to look after during the training. On one occasion, with another student, we had to ensure that the Sensei had water and bananas and that he wasn’t interrupted during the breaks with people wanting to take pictures. We were on cloud nine and took our responsibilities extremely seriously, running across the road to get more water in a full karate suit in the middle of Cork city. The big guns were in the front row and a few of us were buried in the back row praying that we wouldn’t be called upon to do anything in front of the group.

One one occasion we were training with Sensei Cattle, focusing on Unsu, a kata that I loved but it is very long and difficult. We worked through the Kata few times and then were off to do bunkai. My partner was also young and we spent a while looking at the big guns to figure out the intricacies. This was a kata well out of our range but we were spotted by two very experienced Karateka who moved beside us and helped us through each move. When it came to the demonstrations, one of our now mentors pushed us through the crowd so that we could sit at the front and “get all the details”.

Today, when I see new entrants to the dojo, first of all I’m really impressed with their braveness, it takes so much to walk into a dojo with a load of people, who, from the outside look like they know what they are doing. I can never take umbrage when a beginner makes a mistake with the etiquette inside the dojo, that’s ridiculous, how could they know? Of course, over time they can pick up the bits and pieces and I’ve never seen anyone have a go at a beginner. In fact, quite the opposite, so I would encourage anyone who is thinking of joining a dojo to go along and don’t be afraid to ask questions, members of the dojo will be more than happy to answer them!

The only advice I would give, is regarding gradings. In the recent years, I’ve seen both adults and children (& their parents) ask about gradings. In every other walk of life I’d encourage, in fact I coach people to push themselves into improvement situations, however, in Karate, that’s a huge “no-go”. One one occasion, I saw a parent ask a Sensei two things, firstly if his son could leave early on a Saturday, as he needed to get to another class (ju-jitsu I think) and when was the earliest he could be graded as it was “important to his progress against other martial arts”. To set the scene, we were about to move into the adults class and a few of us who were helping out with admin could hear this all unfold. Long story short the parent became exceptionally pushy and somewhat rude. Sensei of course was beautifully calm and respectful… the first 40 minutes of the adults class is still somewhat legendary.

So much as been written about etiquette in martial arts and how it helps shape those who enter it realms. I would have to agree but it has to be with the right focus and an environment that cares for the Karateka. One area for this is around Kumite in the dojo. For me this is all about creating that safe environment for the Karateka to thrive no matter the level. The word I will use here is really centred on trust. All to often though, ego can get in the way and then both parties get stiff, power goes up and then no one is learning. A few of these sessions and those who are less able will shy away from Kumite because of their poor experiences. I sincerely believe that more senior Karateka should create this environment and allow space for learning. Sometimes this is not fully understood by less experienced Karateka, who can, at times assume that they are “getting one over”, not realising they are being given space in the Kumite..

I saw this play out on a Gasshuku where a new blackbelt was sparring with a very very senior Karateka. As the time went on I could see his speed increase and the power of the techniques growing in power. Now I had my own partner to deal with but from the side of my eye I saw a huge axe kick go in, tap the newbie on the chest, then beautiful ashi-barrai with our newbie landing on the floor. Both shook hands, laughed, and with a few found respect (from the newbie) they started sparring again.

Scholars and more learned friends will write about etiquette from martial arts creating discipline that can be taken from the dojo into all walks of life. I’ve seen children thrive in other areas who arrived to the dojo full of energy and with little concentration. For me personally, to this day I remember and live by the words that my Senseis used over the years. One thing that I heard from a very early instructor was that the “suit was all you looked at”. Not a man of words, what he meant was, we were all Karateka when we put on a suit. From a very early age therefore I never considered myself better or worse than anyone else, and expected the same from those around me. Whilst at times I was disappointed by the reactions of others, I remember attending a Kobujitsu Gasshuku with a very famous and well respected Sensei who was teaching a large group, including white to dan grades. We were learning a new kata that few people knew, but of course the more senior Karateka grasped it faster than… well…me and those at my level. As time went on, I moved closer to the back trying to hide a bit and follow those around me. Noticing this, the Sensei stopped the class, put about 10 of us in a separate group and then to my surprise, asked another senior to take the big group, joining us because “we were new and needed additional support”. I never ever forgot this and at the end of the training the Sensei spoke at length about the responsibility of Senseis. I regularly remember this moment and how good I felt for his time, how humble he was and although ferocious, gentle, kind and knowledgeable.

So this was not a cerebral piece about the value of etiquette, rather a discussion of where theory becomes practice.

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