Clarification: In this post I am NOT suggesting people should do as I do. They should not. I am simply giving examples of how I have made our karate more culturally appropriate for the corner of the world in which my dojo is based. Respect remains. Discipline remains. All that has changed is how those things are expressed.I want to know how others have done that. I am NOT making an argument that karateka all over the world should drop titles and formal bows! Please read the full post so that all comments here and elsewhere accurately reflect what is written. Thank you.
Putting to one side the physical side of training (i.e. choice of techniques, forms of practise, etc.), what else has changed, for better or for worse, during your time in karate? Have you made any deliberate changes to the culture, dress code, terminology, ethos of the dojo, etc? What parts, if any, of “traditional dojo culture” have you moved away from? Have you added in anything from your own local culture?
It occurred this may make an interesting thread when I was teaching a new starter last week. I explained to them that it is “traditional” to line up by rank, but we don’t do that. We’ve not done it for many years and we pretty much take it as the norm now. We also don’t do the formal kneeling bows any more either. Or call instructors “Sensei” or similar. Here’s why:
Lining up by rank
When doing kihon, it is standard practise to line up by rank. I stopped that because it means lower grades are always training next to lower grades, and higher grades are always training next to higher grades. Mixing it up means that the lower and intermediate grades are more likely to have higher grades doing some of the same techniques next to them and they tend to get dragged along / inspired / infused with the timing and intensity of the higher grades. There’s a beneficial “learning by osmosis” that takes place when those of differing skill level are not separated from one another.
My belief – based on many years of experience doing it both ways – is that the group benefits from lining up in a mixed order. So we no longer line up by rank. Students understand that’s the way it is generally done; and they also understand why we deviate from that.
Formal kneeling bows
You spend five minutes in a Japanese dojo and it becomes clear that most attempts to replicate Japanese dojo etiquette in the west are inaccurate and un-nuanced imitations. The intent is to show respect for teacher, fellow students and art. I now feel that adding a layer of cultural confusion obfuscates that show of respect, and therefore runs counter to the intent. We therefore now stick to simple bows and western equivalents i.e. shakes of hands and taps of gloves.
Karate has moved through a quite a few differing cultures during its time, and each time it has been adapted to suit (think of all the changes Funakoshi and his contemporaries made to make karate acceptable to the Japanese mainland i.e. “empty hand” not “Chinese hand”, adopting a “do” ethos, wearing light weight judo suits as standard apparel, etc). I see no reason for that process not to continue now that karate is international. And that is why I have abandoned the formal kneeling bows. Students still learn them for “tradition’s sake”, but we don’t normally do them in class.
Students calling their teacher “Sensei”
I’ve dropped that too. I’m “Iain” to my students and that’s it. This is definitely one of those issues that changes radically as you move around the globe; but in my part of Northern England asking to be referred to by a title comes across as arrogant / demanding subservience. My guess would be that this is a throwback to the British class system and a natural rebellion against it. People with titles (Lords, Lords of the Manor, Dukes, Barons, etc.) were people who generally thought themselves inherently superior (by birth alone) to the masses. Things have moved on of course, but I feel there remains a cultural propensity to view people who ask to be known by a title as both arrogant and demanding an acknowledgement of their inherent superiority to the common “plebs”.
Conversely, asking to called by your name comes across as warm and accepting. For example, if I was to refer to someone as “Mr Smith” and they said, “Please call me John” that would come across as being very friendly and open.
So “Iain” works better in my part of the world because it fosters an honest and open relationship. By virtue of skill and experience then I’m “first among equals”, but there is no formal split between teacher and student that my referring to them by name, but insisting they don’t call me by my name, would engender.
It’s not the same in other parts of the world of course. In the USA, for example, martial titles are used much more frequently, and they are used without any sign of the “arrogance” and “aloofness” that is sometimes assumed when such titles are used over here. Again, I would posit that’s because there is not the same cultural baggage in the USA.
In the USA, being addressed by a title is often part of the agreed culture of the martial group, and when everyone buys into that culture it fosters a sense of belonging within the group. It enhances cohesion; whereas where I live it can do the opposite by introducing awkwardness and feelings of subservience and inferiority / superiority. So, as a British “northerner” being called “Sensei” does not work for me and mine. “Iain” works much better.
I’m sure there are a few more, but that illustrates the general idea. To be clear, I don’t think there are any right / wrong calls on this kind of thing. Every given group will have their own culture and traditions; and if it is working for that group, then it’s working. I know of loads of great groups who line up by rank, instil formal Japanese etiquette and who utilise titles. They are not wrong for doing so and I would not seek to argue the culture of my dojo should be adopted by all others. Indeed, in many cases it would be entirely inappropriate for that to be the case. I do, however, think it could be interesting to explore the “cultural tweaks” we have all made. So what are they in your case?
All the best,