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Bow to Your Sensei

by on May 7, 2014

Yesterday I talked with a guy who owns an MMA gym.

One of the things that came up was the formalities which are normally associated with traditional martial arts. He told me he doesn’t like all the cobra-kai, bow to your sensei bullshit. He’s a fighter and he wants the respect he gets from his students to derive intrinsically from his abilities, not extrinsically from some pseudo-traditional confucian ritual. (I’m pretty sure that’s how he worded it…)

He didn’t particularly care for formalities of any sort – counting in foreign languages or making a big deal if someone walks through class.

I completely understand and respect his position, and it made me re-examine my thoughts on dojo ritual and etiquette.

For me, bowing to a partner is the most clear cut. Whether it be a bow, a handshake, or a tapping of gloves, the bows bracket the struggle, providing a metaphorical padded space where you can explore aggressive behaviors safely. I’m all for bowing to partners.

Other rituals are less clear cut to me. There is no doubt that there is an element of asking for respect for something other than your martial skill, perhaps your seniority or even your political acumen.

When looking from a western individualistic perspective it seems obvious that the group bowing at the start and end of practice is a demand of respect from the students to the teacher. This is certainly true, but I don’t think it’s that simple.

In a traditional kai (or at least the only one I know anything about…) members swear an oath, not to the leader, but to the kai itself, which is larger than any individual. Bowing at the start of our practices is the same. The roles of the teacher and student are not the same, but each must be observed out of respect for the kai. A teacher could no more avoid his role than could a student. Everyone, by observing their roles, increases the value of the group to which they all belong.

There is a certain amount of dick-measuring in ritual. One reason to count in Japanese or to write kanji on a whiteboard is to show off how good your Japanese is, and that’s not a motivation to be proud of.

On the other hand, a close relative of dick-measuring is the concept of signaling in economics.

Not everyone has the ability to pronounce Japanese or to memorize all of the “proper” formalities to be observed before a class. One group I know has added an extra syllable into their call to bow, a syllable so un-Japanese that it cannot be rendered in hiragana. Unfortunately this signals to anyone who speaks Japanese that the transmission of the art they received has hardly been smooth.

A well-observed ritual on the other hand, is a signal to new students that there has been a relatively smooth transmission of information. In a traditional art with no external system of objective measurement, the signaling value of ritual becomes much more important.

The best signal is a costly signal, and so the best ritual, for signaling purposes, is a difficult, complicated ritual.

(“It is sometimes said that the perfect garden folly is the one that drives you bankrupt. Why? because to go bankrupt shows you can make the money back some other day.” – Wired for Culture p. 215)

Of course, MMA provides a very tangible system for objective evaluation, so it makes sense that ritual would be much less valuable. As a Tomiki aikido competitor I totally get this. I think there is a lot less bullshit at our events because we have this way to objectively measure our skill. I think I would feel right at home in the MMA gym.

But Tomiki aikido is not just randori. There is a wealth of knowledge, especially in our koryu kata which cannot be tested safely in a tournament. We Tomiki folk have a foot squarely in both worlds.

Beyond signaling or dick-measuring, observing ritual also standardizes practices which facilitates interaction between groups. When I first went to Japan in 2004 I didn’t speak a lick of Japanese, but I had a much easier time studying in two college clubs because I was already familiar with the rituals.

For me, this is the best reason to observe rituals. I hope that I am not so petty as to need students bowing to me, but by observing the rituals at home I am giving them the tools to study elsewhere. My hope is to start taking students to seminars, tournaments, and other events, and when they go they will be glad to already know what to do.

Like any other daily ritual, our dojo rituals provide a framework for behavior that smooths interactions. We don’t talk with acquaintances about the weather because it is particularly interesting. Weather is a framework which allows us to have a friendly, albeit vacuous, interaction.

When I first joined the Ōmi-Aikikan I was very grateful for class rituals. I didn’t know anyone in the group, and I had no idea of their relative status. I was quite eager to take my place at the lowest spot in line, and my willingness to take that place signaled to the group that I wasn’t valuing my prior training over theirs. The ritual was a behavioral script, and following it made entry into this new group in a new style and foreign language much easier.

I think I will continue observing the rituals in practice, but I want to make sure that I am doing so for the right reasons. I don’t care if students kneel or not when I’m teaching, but I want them to know that others might expect it.

If I trot out some Japanese, I don’t want it to be for affirmation or admiration, but only to make it easier for students to learn technique names that sound like gibberish to the uninitiated. At Vassar our sensei Sean always told us the meanings of the Japanese, and because of that I found it much easier to remember them.

In the end, just like a conversation about the weather, it’s less about the ritual itself, and more about how you observe it.

From → Quick hit

  1. s.branch permalink


    Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about. I know you are a video guy at heart, but I can’t help but dig it the most when you expound your position with the written word. You write well, and as I’ve commented in the past, I wish you’d do so more often. That’s not to say you haven’t thrown me a bone or two in that regard, you certainly have. And I’m not implying that your videos don’t impart a level of insight on par with your written wisdom, the videos are gems all their own. That said, for me, your insights that come in text form are easier to preserve for future reference and I shamelessly rob and steal from them when teaching my own classes at Intel, or when I teach a seminar, such as the one I did this past weekend in North Carolina.

    I humbly request that you keep the wisdom coming in all its forms. I will do my best to drink from the fire hose and pass it on to those willing to listen.


    S. Branch

  2. S., you just brightened my evening. I’ll try to keep it coming. Rock on sir, rock on. – C

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