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Aikido Philosophy Corner
Good Etiquette: Your Intent Is Greater Than Your Actions

by Sean Hannon
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Contrary to many young martial arts students think, this is NOT unique to Aikido, Japanese culture, or martial arts.  We are judged by others in all walks of life – business, employment, social groups, etc. – by our etiquette.  Martial arts tend to emphasize the importance of good etiquette because we are engaging in a physical, combat-based or martial intent-based practice where things could quickly get out of hand.  Intentions could be misinterpreted as deliberately violent, injury could easily occur to a training partner, and tempers could easily flair causing unnecessary and unfortunate harm.  Therefore, etiquette is critical.  At our DOJO we say, “Good etiquette leads to good technique; and good technique leads to fewer injuries.”

I have carefully observed and mentally recorded the etiquette of each and every DOJO I have trained in and visited.  I have tried my hardest to assimilate to my environment and make every effort to “fit in” while a student or guest at each school.  The one thing that I have consistently observed is: No two DOJO have exactly the same definition of so-called “good” etiquette.  This becomes particularly evident at seminars when members of dozens of Aikido or Iaido DOJO are present.

However, many well-intentioned students unassumingly label students from other schools as having “bad etiquette,” when in fact they may just be following the established, expected, and proper protocols for their respective schools.  

For example, when transitioning from the standing position to the kneeling position, I have been taught that it is “proper etiquette” to first place the right knee back and down, followed by the left knee.  However, I have also been taught in other schools that it is “proper etiquette” to place the left knee back and down first, followed then by the right knee.  I have even been taught by yet another school that “proper etiquette” for this task is to place the left knee forward and down, followed then by the right knee.  Which then is the “correct” and “proper” way?  

Also, I have been told that it is proper etiquette to sit in SEIZA with your knees two fist lengths apart and with your hands on the crease of your hip and thigh with your elbows flared out.  Conversely, I’ve also been told that you should sit in SEIZA with your knees no more than one fist length apart and with your hands on the mid thigh and never with your arms flared out!

I’ve been told that standing bows (REI) less than 30 degrees could be considered rude, dismissive, and insufficient.  I’ve also been told that bowing more than 30 degrees could be considered rude, excessive, and mocking.

During REI-HO or the formal bowing in at the beginning and ending of class I have trained in Aikido DOJO that clap twice, three times, four times, and even those that don’t clap at all.  Each DOJO has their own explanation or story for the specific number of claps or absence of claps – and each of those explanations are acceptable to me.  However, it becomes painfully evident that there is no single “correct” or “proper” way to demonstrate so-called “good” etiquette.  

In some schools it is appropriate to always take the time to bow from the SEIZA or full kneeling position when thanking a training partner or SENSEI.  In other schools, a standing bow is sufficient and even considered more polite because standing bows cumulatively take less time, providing more time to train.  Taking the few extra seconds to bow from the SEIZA position a dozen or more times throughout a training session could be considered rude in that you are not being conscientious and respectful of the scarcity of training time of the other students.  The instructor could even find this offensive because it takes you more time to return to the line to receive instruction of the next technique. 

My experience is that most students only have one perspective of their Aikido training – that of their own school or organization, and therefore, they tend to think that “their way” is the right way, the only way, and everyone else is wrong.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have had so much exposure to many different schools and instructors that I believe I possess a perspective that many students don't.  I have been able to identify macroscopic trends that traverse the wide etiquette discrepancies that exist in Aikido and martial arts, at large. And, I have come up with a rule of thumb regarding etiquette that, at least in my opinion, is an adequate functional tool for demonstrating good etiquette. That understanding is: One’s intent is far more important than one’s specific actions.

Students with only one perspective are often stupefied and sometimes even paralyzed by experiencing diversity in “proper” martial arts etiquette.  They seem utterly incapable of adapting, which, in my opinion, is one of the qualities and skills that martial arts training is supposed to impart.

Having said all this about the diversity of etiquette that exists in Aikido, one might erroneously conclude that I think anything is acceptable etiquette.  Not so.  Clearly, there are limits to this range of acceptable etiquette.  However, this range is defined, not by specific actions, but by what I call qualities of intent expressed as a person’s disposition, awareness of self as an outsider, and a sense of deference or reservation when entering a foreign dojo.  In short, it is arrogant and presumptuous to enter a dojo other than one’s home dojo and assume that what passes for proper etiquette in your dojo will be acceptable and “proper” etiquette at the dojo you are a guest in.  When visiting other DOJO, it is your responsibility to either carefully observe and/or inquire with the instructor(s) or senior students (SEMPAI) before class what is considered proper etiquette in that dojo.  As such, it would be polite to arrive early enough before class starts to provide yourself with sufficient time to acquire this information. 

For example, in your home, you may typically walk around your house or apartment wearing shoes.  However, it would be inconsiderate to assume that others do the same as you.  Many people prefer that people remove their shoes prior to entering one’s home for sanitary reasons and to keep the carpets and floors in good condition.  It, of course, is always polite to inquire with the home owner prior to entering their home wearing shoes.  This same attitude should be taken when training at foreign DOJO.  So, one should demonstrate the intent of conscientiousness.

A second example of this quality of intent that I recommend exhibiting is an acute and deferent sense of self-awareness.  For example, many years ago, I was running the front desk/lobby area of our DOJO during an ongoing class when all of the sudden a stranger abruptly walked in the front door. I greeted him, “Hello, how can I help you?”  The man dismissively responded with, “I’m good, thanks” and proceeded to walk straight toward the training area without even looking at me or breaking his stride.  He then, right in the middle of class, walked on to the dojo floor without removing his shoes, walked up to the instructor, interrupted him and started to introduce himself.  Now, I hope I’m not contradicting myself, but this, to me, seems like just plain bad manners.  His actions were way beyond the range of what could be considered good etiquette.  Furthermore, his intent was selfish.  This man had no sense of humility of deference, no sense that he was entering someone else’s “house”, and had no regard for anyone but himself.  Now, it is possible that this behavior could be excused if this gentleman were completely new to the martial arts.  However, he introduced himself as a 2nd black belt in Aikido!  Clearly, this gentleman was under the impression that his rank entitled him to absolute and complete rudeness.  He later apologized to me for ignoring me, only upon realizing that I was the owner and DOJO-CHO of the school.  However, his apology was unacceptable.  Clearly, this man was apologizing to me only upon discovering my role at the dojo, but his behavior would have unacceptable toward any member or guest of the dojo. 

Let me contrast this ugly story of etiquette with a positive one that moved me greatly.  One of our instructors, Goettsche Sensei, who in my opinion, has impeccable etiquette, recently demonstrated both humility and deference during one of our testing events.  Goettsche Sensei holds the rank of 4th degree black belt.  One of our other instructors holds a lower rank.  Both teachers earned their ranks in different organizations of Aikido training.  Yet when it came time to formally bow in for our testing event, Goettsche Sensei deferred to the other instructor, offering to him the opportunity to enter the training space first and lead the bow in ritual even though Goettsche Sensei is technically of higher-rank. In the most-strict sense of “proper” and “traditional” Aikido etiquette, it was technically Goettsche Sensei’s right to enter first and lead the bow in.  So, why did he make such a gesture?  You’ll have to ask Goettsche Sensei.  Perhaps it is because the other instructor has been with us at Castle Rock AIKIDO longer.  Perhaps it is because the other instructor is 30 years Goettsche Sensei’s senior.  Regardless of his reasoning, the humility Goettsche Sensei publicly demonstrated in front of many of our other students was noticed and appreciated by me (and certainly others) and it served as a valuable lesson for all.  

One’s rank is their own and it is not something to hold “over” or compare to someone else's.  Just because you may hold rank for yourself at your dojo, do not necessarily expect your rank to carry significance in some one else’s dojo.  Goettsche Sensei demonstrated an acute awareness of his environment and executed his actions accordingly in a non-arrogant, non-entitlement-based manner.  To me, this is the kind of dojo that I wish to train in – one of humility and respect for others.  I am so incredibly grateful for the instructors we have at Castle Rock AIKIDO & IAIDO.  

When you choose to consciously practice this kind of self-awareness, your intent becomes very obvious to those around you.  We've all been in situations where we can sense someone else's intent, not by their words, but by their posture, facial expressions, body language, gait, and numerous other non-verbal cues.  We usually can sense someone's intent when they approach us in a friendly or not-so-friendly manner.  If we practice our etiquette with the intention of politeness, 9 out of 10 times we will be perceived by others as polite regardless if we bow deep enough, clap the right number of times, use a correct title, or kneel in the "correct" order.  This is what is meant by qualities of intent.

So remember, your intent speaks much louder than your specific actions.  There is no single and only way to demonstrate good manners or good etiquette.  There is only good etiquette for the particular environment you happen to be in at any given moment.  Instead, be cognizant, be humble, be deferent and you will certainly find yourself assimilating with ease.

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Over the past twenty years, I have had the privilege of training with more than 10 different Aikido instructors in four different states.  Some of those instructors were of Japanese ethnicity, some were not.  However, all of them emphasized the importance of proper etiquette (or REI-HO), considering it above all paramount.  “Good etiquette is good manners,” I was told.  “You will be judged in this DOJO, when visiting other schools, and at seminars, in large part, by your etiquette more so than your technique.”