When you first visit a traditional martial arts dojo, it can seem a little otherworldly. People wearing strange clothes, saying some things in a foreign language, and what is up with all that bowing?
Some people accept it as just how things are done, but worse are those that won’t ask why those things are done.
In the modern day there are plenty of places that teach some kind of self defense system that is free of all the dojo etiquette trappings. So, what does traditional dojo etiquette (rei-ho in Japanese) have to do with improving my personal defense skills?
The first thing to understand is that etiquette the social lubricant that keeps us from being unpleasantly surprised, pissing each other off, and in extreme cases – trying to kill each other. Etiquette is for survival!
The second thing to understand is that there is etiquette in almost everything in life.
- How you address people: Mr. Mrs. Ms., yes sir, no ma’am vs. hey you, yeah or nah vs. yes or no (addressing people properly is in major decline in America)
- Dining: placement of forks and knives (not so much anymore), chewing with your mouth closed, not talking and chewing at the same time
- Tipping bartenders and servers appropriately
- Covering your mouth with yawning, sneezing, or coughing
- How to properly shake someones hand
- Being quiet in a library
- Differences in how you behave at work, home, towards guests, towards friends, etc.
- Dress codes: wedding party or wedding guest, funeral, business meeting, working out, uniform at your job, military.
- Proper military etiquette
- and nowadays, cell phone and social media etiquette
There is even etiquette in criminal circles! For example, in sex trafficking circles, the girls who are prostituted cannot walk on the same level of ground as the pimp. If the pimp is walking on the curb or sidewalk, the girls must walk in a lower position in the street. There are many more examples in this context. It’s a perverse form of etiquette, but etiquette none the less.
So what’s the point of performing rei-ho in the dojo? Why not just use our own American standards of etiquette?
The first and most obvious reason is that you’ll need to know it if you visit Japan to train at the Honbu dojo (headquarters). Regardless of culture, no one likes rude people. When you don’t know the etiquette of a culture, you seem rude and obnoxious. When in Rome, do as Romans do. Or at least try your best. The Japanese instructors know when you are at least making a sincere attempt to follow etiquette. But it’s still a good idea to try to understand some of the subtleties.
But beyond that, because it is the etiquette of a foreign culture, it forces you to pay attention to detail. That sharpens your mind and improves your awareness of subtleties. You learn to read between the lines or, as Hatsumi-sensei has said, “Read the air” of social interactions. Our inherited American etiquette is so natural that it is habit. It requires little to no effort to follow. It’s just how we behave. You need a sharp and aware mind to assess potentially dangerous situations as they develop, make plans to deal with them if they can’t be avoided, and know how to act efficiently in the midst of a violent scenario.
But most importantly…
Reverence towards your training. The process that you use to develop physical and psychological fitness as well as defensive skills that can save your life or the lives of your loved ones.
Reverence towards other people. Your training partners. Your friends and family. Even strangers and other random people. How often do you here people say, “yeah” or “nah” vs. “Yes, sir” or “No, ma’am” to the person they are speaking to.
And of course reverence towards life! To not use martial skill negligently or maliciously. To use your power in selfless service to others rather than for personal gain. To not be greedy. To leave things in a better condition than how you found them.
Dojo etiquette is about keeping your ego in check.
Ultimately, it’s about making the world a better place!