Japan – Language, Etiquette, and Culture in Aikido

This is the tenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

J is for Japan.

Aikido originated in Japan. Japanese tradition, language, and culture influences everything about the art – the names of techniques, the design of the dojo, the way we address each other, etiquette and attire, even the relationships between junior and senior students, and our teachers.

Japanese Words in Aikido.

At the dojo you will hear a lot of Japanese words used – for the names of techniques, weapons, and parts of the dojo. We also use a few traditional Japanese words when addressing each other. You do not need to speak Japanese to train in Aikido, and you’ll find you can pick up the words we do use pretty quickly.

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“Domo arigato gozaimashita, Sensei.”
[DOH-moh ar-ee-GAT-oh go-za-ee-MAHSH-ta, SEN-say]
“Thank you very much (for what you’ve just done), Teacher.”
We say this when we bow out at the end of each class.

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I have written a handful of posts introducing some common Japanese Words in Aikido, with more topics planned.

The Aikido FAQ offers a very complete Aikido Dictionary.

Here is a lovely article on some interesting words that give us insight into the Japanese Culture:
11 Beautiful Japanese Words That Don’t Exist In English
Untranslatable words from Japan, the polite and nature-loving country

Mind your manners.

In Japanese martial arts, rei-gi [RAY-ghee], or etiquette, is an important component of the practice. You will find most dojo observe somewhat different standards of behavior than you’d normally see in the outside world.

Some customary manners in the dojo come from budo [BOO-doh], or martial tradition. Dropping down to sit on the floor in seiza [SAY-zuh], on our knees, is done left-knee first, and rising is done right-knee first. These conventions, similar to mounting a horse from the left side, were necessary when wearing a sword on the left hip. We can’t draw our sword easily (or safely) if we have our left knee up, blocking it.

Other rules are passed down through common Japanese culture. These include taking our shoes off when we enter the dojo, or being careful not to sit with our feet sticking out in front of us. We bow when we enter the dojo, at the beginning and ending of class, and before and after we train with our partners.

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“Etiquette and courtesy are things we should be giving to everyone, those above us and those below us. The most senior, accomplished and masterful martial artists I have encountered are also the most courteous, patient, polite, respectful and forgiving. They have learned and internalized the lessons present in the forms of etiquette and politeness that we use during practice. When they bow, it is not an empty gesture because that is what is expected from them. It is a meaningful symbol of what they think and feel.”
~ Peter Boylan, The Budo Bum
Budo Begins and Ends with Rei

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On the surface, these may seem like just prescribed actions – things we do because we’re expected to. But on a deeper level they indicate thoughtful, deliberate respect and commitment. In some cases, such as bowing, the action gives us a moment to settle and consider what we are about to do. For instance, bowing on entering the dojo not only demonstrates respect for the place and the community, but also indicates that we are entering a space, physically and mentally, separate from our day-to-day life outside.

Each dojo will observe traditional etiquette more or less strictly. When you begin training, watch the senior students to see what they do. Sometimes, someone will tell you directly what you should do, and sometimes you will be expected to catch on eventually by observing others.

Here is an excellent post on the broader meanings of etiquette in Japanese martial arts and culture, Budo Begins And Ends With Rei, by Peter Boylan, The Budo Bum.

Here’s a great, and humorous, overview of etiquette in Japan, with links to additional information:
Japanese Etiquette 101 – How to Save Yourself from Embarrassment in Japan

It’s a Japanese Thing.

Some things are quite different from what Westerners are used to. Japanese culture is more focused on the group than the individual. Direct confrontation is avoided. Communication can be subtle, especially when there is disagreement.

Here in Southern California, we generally tend to be rather egalitarian. Everyone addresses everyone else by first name. People wear casual clothing almost anywhere. Social status can be subtle, and people aren’t automatically afforded more respect – actual or demonstrated – just because of wealth or seniority. We’re pretty relaxed. But in the dojo, things are a bit more formal. We are less rigid than some dojo, but even so, hierarchy is something people are conscious of. We address our teacher as “Sensei,” never “Hey Dave!” We defer to students of higher rank, and would not dream of questioning or correcting them outright, especially in front of others. However, like in Japanese culture, all people are respected, and not judged to be greater or lesser just because of position.

Other cultural aspects carry over as well. Classes begin and end on time. We all help maintain the dojo – it’s not something we leave for “someone else” to take care of. When in doubt, err on the side of being too formal. Sincere demonstrations of respect go a long way.

This site gives a set of good, basic Guidelines for Viewing Classes at a Traditional Dojo (scroll about halfway down the page):

This funny and interesting article covers some points you might notice about Japanese culture:
24 quirky cultural tidbits about Japan from this Westerner’s perspective, by Benny Lewis

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

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