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The importance of etiquette to safety in the dojo


AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye

Observe the beginning of every class at the Midwest Aikido Center in Chicago, and you will invariably see the students line up quietly behind the instructor, kneeling in seizathe traditional Japanese way of sitting on the floor.  

After a moment of silence, which seems interminable to Western legs unaccostomed to the position, everyone bows to a picture of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido.  The students and the instructor then bow to a photo of of the late Akira Tohei Shihan, founder of the dojo.  The instructor smoothly pivots on his or her knees to face the students, and instructor and students bow to each other.

This ritual, which can seem incredibly alien to American eyes, is repeated in many traditional Japanese dojo around the world.  The bowing is not, as it would seem to the casual observer, a form of cultish behavior.  Rather, it is traditional sign of respect, and acknowledgment of the contributions of all who came before in the art.  As a practical matter, it serves as a very tangible transition from the normal day to keiko, or martial arts training.  It also focuses one's attention on the class, and shuts out the remaining noise of the day.

Most dojo and dojang, regardless of national origin and martial arts style, demand a code of etiquette from their members.  Westerners tend to be uncomfortable with such rituals, often wanting to "get on with it".  In Japan, the etiquette and ritual are collectively known as reishiki, and like many old traditions, have very practical origins.

A dojo is a place of great learning, but as with any physical endeavor, there is a constantly present element of danger.  Whether the students are performing kata, sparring, or practicing throws and joint locks, there is always the possibility of injury.  There are fists, kicks, and bodies flying about, often making contact with each other or the floor.  The danger increases geometrically when weapons are introduced, and on rare occassions, when tempers rise.

Martial arts practitioners often bow to each other as a sign of respect.  This also serves as a visual and physical reminder that this is practice, and not a contest of egos or a true battle.  As such, bowing tends to act as a safety valve, defusing potentially volatile situations by reminding practitioners of why they are there.

However, there are other forms of expected etiquette besides bowing.  For example, students who are waiting to practice are often required to sit at the edge of the mat, often seated in seiza.  They are cautioned to occupy as small a space as possible and not have their limbs splayed out.  Not only is sloppy sitting constidered bad form, but in an environment of constant motion, any extended limbs can serve to trip an unsuspecting practitioner and cause injury.

When not practicing, unnecessary movement is frowned upon.  Most dojo have limited floor space, and at such close quarters, random, unpredicable motions are a precursor to an accident.

If you don't realize you can kill someone with a bokken, I don't want you using one in *MY* dojo...
- Frederick J. Lovret

Many martial arts styles train with a variety of weapons.  While these are considered "practice" weapons, many of them are lethal in their own right.  Miyamoto Musashi, the celebrated Japanese swordsman who authored The Book of Five Rings, won his last and most famous duel against Sasaki Kojiro, using a bokken he had carved from an oar.  At the end of the duel, Sasaki Kojiro was dead, his ribs broken by a "practice" weapon.   With this degree of potential danger, each dojo or style will have a prescribed method of retrieving weapons from the racks and a protocol for transferring a weapon from one practtioner to another. 

Some dojo will require that the practioner bow when retrieving a weapon from the rack, and a specific way of holding the weapon and a distinct direction in which to move as he or she retreats form the rack.  This practice introduces predictability in movement, and ensures that all members move a certain way and in a certain direction, and thus preventing inadvertent contact and possible injury.  

When transferring a weapon to another practitioner, the weapon is usually handed over with a brief bow.  Most dojo will also require some tactile acknowledgment, such as firm grip on the weapon, to minimize the possibilty of fumbling the transfer.   Weapons are never grabbed without permission, or left unattended, except in specific areas.  Weapons are always picked up in a controlled fashion, with both hands if practical.

Good hygiene is good etiquette.  In general, practicing in a clean gi and clean body not only makes practice more pleasant, but also limits the spread of disease.  In grappling and throwing arts, closely trimmed nails are required in order to prevent cuts, scratches, and torn nails.  Any blood on the floor or mat is immediately cleaned up and the area sterilized, in order to prevent the spread of blood-borne pathogens.

Having safely completed an activity that has an extremely high rate of injury, the students line up once again and bow - to the memory of those who came before, to their instructor, and finally to each other.  This closes the keiko, and the students once again return to the safer environs of normal life.

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