Over the years I have spent in martial arts, I have had the opportunity to visit different Dojo, training spaces and attend demonstrations. Also, as an instructor and branch manager, I often have visitors to my location. I put together the following list as a general guideline to use or think about if you are planning to visit a traditional Dojo (of any style). These are things we consider to be important. This is not an exhaustive list, and I have seen much better versions of similar ideas online. If you are reading this and plan to visit another styles training space, check around online and see if you can find information about that style’s expectations on Etiquette. It will make your visit that much more enjoyable.
At the very least, dress in business casual if you plan to visit another Dojo. Your appearance says a lot about you. Dressing nice is a sign of respect for the place you are attending. This is something that has been lost over the past few decades in our country…jeans are not appropriate everywhere. Showing that you have respect for a place by dressing well is a nice start. Just like dressing up to attend a special event or to eat at a nice restaurant, a visit to a Dojo is a formal event and should be treated as such. There are very few exceptions to this. Even if you are coming from work for a Dojo visit, bring something nice to change into.
If you attend a class to watch, actually watch the class. Turn off your cell phone and put the headphones away. If you can’t pay attention and not answer your phone for two hours during class, you probably don’t have the attention span or dedication necessary for practice. Observing how the members interact with each other, watching the style and how the students are progressing in it, what is being corrected, etc, will give you a lot of information about that particular style, school and teacher.
Address the Instructor properly
Always use the “last name + Sensei” formula when addressing an instructor (unless you are told to do otherwise.) This is a standard title used for an instructor in the Japanese martial arts. It doesn’t mean “Master”. Some people may say: “That person isn’t my teacher and I only have one Sensei.” These people are wrong and obviously don’t understand the concept of that term. It is a form of respect, just like saying “Dr. Smith”, for example. Teachers hold a specific position and that position is indicated by the use of this particular honorific and nothing else. Students should also keep this in mind. In correspondence, when addressing an instructor always use the proper term. Never assume to use a first name. This should be true in business as well. You address people formally until you are told to do otherwise. In Japan, there is an “inner circle” and “outer circle” concept. You are in the “outer circle” until told otherwise. Using an instructor’s first name is considered very rude and assumes a close relationship with that instructor that you may not have. In time, an instructor may tell you that it is okay to use first names during certain situations. In the Dojo, however, this basic name structure should always apply.
Never ask someone to see or hold their sword
This is also considered very rude. It would be akin to asking a police officer to hand over his gun for your inspection. Our katana are our weapons and they are our very spirit. If you are a stranger, you should never ask someone else to hand over such an important piece of equipment to your care. Never ask to see a sword…always wait to have it shown to you. If an instructor asks to see your equipment, it is generally for safety reasons and that request should always be acquiesced to. If you are presented with a sword to view, please put a business card between your lips or use a cloth to cover your mouth as the condensation from the breath from your nose and mouth can leave moisture on the blade and damage them, or force the owner to do a complete cleaning of the whole blade afterwards. Even with Iaito that may not suffer as much immediate damage, just the thought of breathing all over someone’s spirit is very rude. Also, never touch a blade with your fingers. This seems like common sense, but it has happened to me twice at demos and I even witnessed it once with Alexanian Shihan. I’m not sure why people always try to do this, but they do. If someone asks to see your sword at a demo, kindly tell them NO.
When in Rome…
If you see that everyone takes off their shoes when they walk in, take off your shoes. If they bow to Shinzen during the class opening, you should stand up and bow as well. The same applies if they bow to the teacher. You are, in fact, watching a lesson and therefore are a student at that moment, so act like one, just like being on the floor with the other students. The same is true if you sit out when sick; you should still bow in and bow out. Watch for clues from the students who are present and try to follow the rules. If you visit someone else’s home, you try to follow what they do…the Dojo is no different.
Generally speaking, nobody cares what you have accomplished prior to walking through the door, or how good people think you are. Unless you are well-trained in the same style as the Dojo you are visiting, any previous experience you have has no bearing on your visit. Posturing about your accomplishments, the number of styles you mastered, how long you have been in “x” ,“y” or “z” doesn’t really matter. Also, name-dropping about teachers, people you have met, etc. has no place. Most instructors care only about your current teacher and why you are not staying there. A good saying to remember is: “Better than a thousand days of study, is one day with a good teacher.” If you have been in training with so many great people, you probably don’t need instruction and have no place in the Dojo you are visiting. You are not a special snowflake. We will not, nor will any other properly run Dojo, award you rank for your specialness. You have not “mastered” anything. You have probably barely scratched the surface. To think or act otherwise makes you look ridiculous. People who have been training for a while can tell what you know by your behaviour during your visit. It tells more about your ability than anything you can say.
Being aware of time
People teaching a class have limited time, both before and after the class, to speak to visitors. They usually have enough to do managing the current student’s lesson and the facility (as well as changing into and out of keikogi, hakama, etc) to spend a long time listening to you cover your many accomplishments. Use their time wisely. Ask a few appropriate questions, wait to be asked questions and then go about your way and let them do what they have to. If you manage your visit properly you may grow to know these people and, in time, learn more. Always wait to be approached by a member of the Dojo, or to have a senior student bring you up to meet the instructor. After the introduction, and a formal bow, you may have the opportunity to talk. Wait for the instructor to prompt you with a question. They may ask: “So did you find this class interesting?”, or something to that nature that implies they are interested in your thoughts. Otherwise, please wait. It could be that the instructor wants to see if you come back again in order to gauge your interest, or there may be some other reason. Whatever the case may be, keep in mind that this is their place of training and you are a visitor there, so wait for their lead. To this same point, you should ALWAYS call or e-mail ahead and wait for the instructor to allow the visit. Just dropping in on a whim is quite disruptive. You will be regarded more as an intruder than a visitor and you probably won’t achieve much from a visit like that anyway.
Do not make comparisons to things you do, things you have read, etc.
The best way to be shown the door during a visit is to say things like: “We do so and so much different / better than here” or ” I read in a book that it is supposed to be like “X.” If you are visiting a Dojo, you most likely have no idea what they do on a regular basis. To make comparisons to other styles; to try and diminish aspects of the art you are viewing as right or wrong, better or worse, just shows your lack of understanding, and your poor training. If you come to a Dojo to watch and learn something, then understand there are many different ways to practice.
You represent your teacher and Dojo
When you visit a Dojo as a current student of another teacher, you represent them, their teachings and their school. To act inappropriately during your visit only serves to show how poorly you have been trained or developed by them. Do a little research ahead of time and try to represent your school in the best possible light. Err on the side of formality above all else.
Before attending a seminar or visiting another Dojo, double-check what your intention for going truly is. Are you only interested in that art? Do you want to meet others who share your interest? Or is there some other self-focused reason? If you would like to experience another art and get to know others who share your interests, then consider how you are being viewed by them. Are you a humble person, or one who is just interested in posturing? Are you aware of their time? Are you friendly? It seems like common sense, but generally self- absorbed, self-focused braggarts do not make friends easily. The Dojo environment is no different. Put your best foot forward and you may be accepted… in time. Remember that training takes a lifetime. It is not always challenging, not always about you. It is not usually easy. Your instructor and your classmates don’t always do things the way that you want them to. This is a journey, and a unique one at that. Staying put for a while through the highs and lows will allow you to experience the whole ride, not just the short-term thrills.
In closing, one of the most interesting things that I learned during our recent trip to Japan is how difficult it is to be accepted into an art like this. We should not only feel lucky to have the opportunity to study this art, but we should also appreciate the fact that we have a relatively open-door policy compared to Japan. Either way, our focus should be the same. We are protecting a cultural art and who we train with and allow into the group should undergo very careful scrutiny as we expect to be training with them for a long time.
Brent Eastman, 5th dan
United States Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu
Southeast Michigan Branch Manager