How should we act toward an instructor visiting from Japan? How should we treat the main instructor of our dojo? How should we treat fellow students who are senior? Or those who are junior? What if someone else is senior in years but junior in rank?
Sometimes, in the most formal situations, knowing exactly what the best thing to do is may be difficult. But in terms of showing respect itself, I think it is fairly straightforward.
Webster defines “courteous” as well-mannered, and “polite” as having or showing good manners. “Courtesy” is a polite, helpful or considerate act or remark. “Respect”, on the other hand, is to feel or show honor or esteem for, to hold in high regard. You can communicate or display your respect (or lack thereof) through your posture, words, speaking manner and overall attitude.
How to treat other people seems to me to be common sense. Without trying to sound religious, I think it worth noting the quote “Do unto others as you would like others to do unto you.” Treat other people with respect if you would like them to treat you with respect. Simple as that.
Sure, the world does not always work that way. But it is worth trying, anyway.
Another quote I like is from a movie about a military high school (I forgot the name of the movie), in which the headmaster, a combat-hardened and heavily decorated retired general, begins the school term with a speech to the students that includes something to the effect of “You don’t have to earn my respect. You already have my respect for being here. Let’s hope you don’t lose it.” The idea here is that people deserve to be treated with respect, at least until they do something that should cause others to lose some degree of respect for them. I am not trying to make a case that everyone deserves the same amount of respect. But I suggest giving each person the benefit of the doubt, at least until he or she proves to be unworthy.
In dealing with the gradation between ranks in karate, I think the overriding theme should be that mentioned above. We should treat everyone with the respect he or she deserves. And when someone does not seem to deserve such a high level of respect, at least show courtesy.
There are, however, certain situations that may require extra consideration. For example, older, more traditional instructors may be used to longer, slower bows than many of us are used to at the beginning and end of class. The key point to bear in mind is that the students should wait until the instructor is finished bowing first. For those on the junior end of the line, it is usually best to follow the lead of the senior members in the line, waiting for them to begin their rise from the bowing position as well.
Here are some pointers to keep in mind when training with a high-ranking Japanese instructor:
• Be at the dojo on time and ready to begin class as soon as he gives the signal.
• Do not make any assumptions about how long each part of the class will take or if/when any water breaks might occur.
• Do not ask questions unless he offers to take questions, at least not during the class, and limit the questions to the subject matter of the class (unless the instructor has indicated that all types of questions are welcome).
• Remember that “actions speak louder than words.” Bow deeply and try hard to follow directions and show good technique and spirit.
Now that I reread the above, I realize that what I wrote should apply to any instructor. Please reread with this thought in mind and try to see if you are treating your regular instructor(s) the way he/she/they should be treated.
Outside the dojo setting, the instructor may expect the same level of formality as in the dojo, that students should bow down to them (at least figuratively) as if they were in class. For a visiting instructor who rarely visits, it is probably worth putting the extra effort forward to accommodate. As stated above, I believe that people should be treated with the respect they deserve. For an older, very experienced individual, he most likely deserves some extra attention and courtesy regardless of his abilities as a martial artist. Also bear in mind that many older people in general have been brought up with more formality and courtesy in their daily lives than many of us are used to today.
I have a friend who has been teaching karate at a very high level for quite some time, regarded internationally as a top-rate instructor. He once made a point of telling me that he had such great respect for the students in his small dojo, since all of them were such specialists in their respective fields that he felt that he was at best their equal, all things considered. It was quite humbling to hear this.
Many instructors of children’s classes make a point of teaching their students to be courteous and polite. Respect is a word used often by some teachers. I think that this can be one of the most important things a young student learns in so-called karate classes. They may not really understand the finer technical points (if any are even taught, understanding that many “karate classes” for kids have very little to do with authentic karate) and most likely will forget most of what they learned soon after they quit their class (hopefully, of course, they will stick with it for the long term, but that is rare). The emphasis on respect and courtesy, however, tend to result in longer term character improvements. Perhaps there is a lesson for the adults in this, too.
The main idea is that we should try to show people the respect they deserve. When in doubt, assume they deserve a high level of respect and downgrade accordingly only after they have proven themselves deserving of such.
Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published August 2003)