Dojo Etiquette and Selecting your Training Partner in Class by Steve Kanney

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Aikido is a very social practice. The reasons for this fact may be clearer than one might imagine. Humans are essentially social animals. Without society, clearly we would not survive. A violent situation is entirely social – it is between two or more parties. So if Aikido is going to be relevant to our lives as well as martial interaction, it is of necessity a social martial art.

However, being social in nature does not mean the rules of engagement mirror that of a social club. For a martial art to be effective, it must enter a social domain and promote rules of engagement that follow a very strict martial discipline designed to meet the goals of training.

The simple decision process of whom you select as a partner takes place in every class, and must fit these rules of engagement in order for Aikido training to produce positive results. It can make the determination whether a dojo is a martial arts training center or merely a social club. We will look at this question from two angles – the martial aspects and the sempai-kohai relationship.

The martial aspect of this decision is straightforward. To the extent anyone has been in some sort of altercation, one notices the simple fact that the person attacking you is not normally someone you like. If you had to pick someone you wanted to attack you, chances are that would not be the person you get. Their body type might not fit your preference and their general aggression and wish to do you harm may be offensive and disconcerting. The point of training in class is to move towards mimicking the environment of such an altercation. So if you insert your own preferences into your training by selecting your partner based upon your personal likes and dislikes, that strategy in no way prepares you for a martial situation.

The better approach is to remain open to everyone and see what lessons will be coming your way during that training session. When you get a partner who is difficult, you should rejoice. It is a good opportunity to test your knowledge and see where your practice needs work. Should you find a partner that smells bad, again you should rejoice. Can you be guaranteed someone who attacks you on the street will be freshly showered and wearing the perfume or cologne of your choosing? Can you get past the odor without distraction in class? Were you hoping to get a certain type of athletic workout in class? Is that what you would be thinking during a real attack? Generally, if your partner is someone offensive to you, learning patience is critical to martial arts training. Chances are a real attacker will also be offensive to you. That’s usually what makes them an attacker. Patience can transition your feelings to compassion and turn the attack into a friendly discussion. As we can see, some of the reasons we might have for preferring one partner over another can be very destructive to the underlying purpose of training.

Letting go of your personal preferences and learning patience are critical aspects of practice. But before we conclude, let’s look at the sempai-kohai relationship, which systematizes the social interaction in practice.

On the plaque on our dojo’s wall, Sugano Sensei explains that one should take care of their juniors and respect their seniors. This is the martial tradition. Sempai does everything for the benefit of their kohai, and kohai listens carefully without questioning under the assumption that sempai knows more. The broad system of ranking people within a dojo has the benefit of giving people a systematized approach on how to interact constructively. With no system on who is senior, everyone in the dojo could feel a need to fight for the superior position in every class. This increase in aggression is precisely the opposite of why we are training.

However, the ranking process itself does not have any absolutes in terms of how each rank compares with another. People advance in rank by learning certain lessons for their own practice. Each lesson is not specified by the rank, but by the individual’s training. Two people with the same rank can have a broadly different understanding and level of skill. Since there is no absolute level of understanding or skill associated with a given rank, it actually does not make sense for the system of sempai-kohai relationships in the dojo to absolute either. Rather, they form a starting point for relations.

There are a number of reasons to cross the boundaries of this system of relationships. However, the decision to cross this line comes with significant practice and is not an appropriate decision for beginners in general. Here are a couple of simple examples. If your senior tells you to do something you know with absolute certainty is wrong – perhaps it is dangerous or violates the principles of practice – the correct action is not to follow the suggestion. One should be respectful to their sempai, but gently guide them towards your best understanding of what is wrong with their approach. In order to engage in this sort of action with your senior, your knowledge that they are wrong must cross the most stringent threshold. The reason is that you begin with the assumption that your sempai tells you something for your benefit alone and they know more than you do. A simple gut feeling that “that doesn’t seem right to me” is not sufficient. You need to have a clear understanding of the principles of the practice and know precisely why the instruction you received violates those principles directly. Otherwise, refrain from the temptation to instruct your sempai, listen to their direction and you may find out why they gave you the suggestion.

Another example is when you tell your sempai of a significant injury you have and why you must adjust your training for your safety. If your sempai repeatedly ignores your concerns due to lack of self control and places your safety at risk, you should go so far as to respectfully refuse to train with that person. Even if they turn to you to bow and practice a technique, you should deflect the overture and select another partner. This example is a legitimate reason to choose your training partner in class judiciously.

From the discussion above, we should be able to see that every decision we make in class, even the decision of who to train with, affects the quality of our practice. If you select a training partner based upon your personal likes or interests, you give up the actual training to accept others and develop patience. You also give up the ability to learn from the types of situations you may actually be faced with in a violent encounter. Your practice becomes stale and your experience of the dojo is more of a social club than martial training. If you violate the sempai-kohai system by failing to respect your sempai without proper reason, your experience of the dojo will act to reinforce your own ignorance of correct practice rather than learning from your interactions with others. It is a form of arrogance which will increase your chances of getting into a violent situation and reduce your chances of getting out of it. You should note that even when your sempai is doing something that is clearly incorrect, respecting them as human beings is still an essential part of the practice as taught by Koichi Tohei. Respecting the humanity of an assailant is actually the best way to diffuse the violence.

Everyone makes their own decisions with regard to how to train – properly or not. But everyone also receives the results of their decisions – substantial benefits or not. The systems are there for guidance, but as in any endeavor, one gets out of it what they put into it…

Article Name
Dojo Etiquette