Etiquette and the Preservation of Well-being by Stanley Pranin

“Etiquette serves to create a training environment where inherently
dangerous techniques can be practiced with a predictable outcome.”

Aikido Journal #113 (1998)

Last month I attended a Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu seminar conducted by Katsuyuki Kondo Sensei in Baltimore, Maryland. In the course of his instruction, Kondo Sensei made a statement that struck me as especially profound. He said, “the purpose of etiquette (reigi saho) is self-defense.” I have in recent years instinctively grasped the importance of etiquette, but I don’t recall ever having thought through the implications of the use or failure to observe the rules of etiquette.

Let’s consider for a moment some definitions. First, etiquette: “the forms required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life: observance of the proprieties of rank and occasion.” Also, the related term, manners: “habitual conduct or deportment in social intercourse evaluated according to some conventional standard of politeness or civility.” Finally, custom: “a long-established, continued, peaceable, reasonable, certain and constant practice considered as unwritten law and resting for authority on long consent.” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary) In my reading of these terms, the key concept is “long-observed behavior proper to a specific context whose effect is to ensure social order.”

How about some concrete examples? One instance of proper etiquette in a martial arts context would be the placing of one’s sword on the right side as a symbol of peaceful intent. The sword is carried and drawn from the left side. Positioning it on the right side made it difficult to access quickly, thus rendering the weapon ineffective. A samurai seated before a superior who failed to move his sword to his right side scabbard facing outward could be immediately executed for his breach of etiquette. A similar example would be that of the military salute. I remember reading somewhere or other that the original meaning of the right-handed salute was to show that one’s weapon hand was empty and therefore posed no threat. A soldier who fails to observe such a simple gesture of respect faces disciplining according to the code of military justice.

What about etiquette inside the dojo? Many teachers I have seen over the years attach great importance to this subject. In dojos which observe strict etiquette, the teacher and students bow to each other to begin and end each class. Students also bow to each other when pairing off to train and after training together. I interpret the act of bowing in the dojo not only as a custom of respect, but also as an implied promise on the part of both sides to practice within safe bounds. Thus, in the dojo as well, etiquette serves to create a training environment where inherently dangerous techniques can be practiced with a predictible outcome.

Then there is the question of etiquette in the workplace. I speak here primarily of contemporary Western culture as the rules of behavior and accepted limits would be different in Japan and other male-dominated Asian cultures. In this age of political correctness, a male who fails to behave within the bounds of propriety and speaks or acts offensively toward a female may be hit with charges of sexual harassment. If the matter is brought before the courts by the offended party, the male perpetrator, if convicted, is subject to fines and/or imprisonment.

The subject of etiquette in the home is one near and dear to my heart as I am the father of two young children and in the thick of the fray, as it were. It will seem to some futile to attempt to impose good manners on young children at too early an age due to their egocentric behavior and short retention powers. Yet I have found that even though my children forget to speak politely or utter the appropriate greeting they do indeed recognize such forms of etiquette as desirable behavior. I know this to be the case because they do sometimes remember to use polite language and will even lecture my wife and me on the importance of being courteous when the mood strikes them!

One aspect of family dynamics where the role of etiquette might not normally be recognized has to do with the interaction between husband and wife. I think the percentage of couples who make it a point to treat each other with respect and kindness surely constitutes a minority. Perhaps the idea is that since the husband-wife relationship is an intimate one, etiquette and formality are unnecessary, even artificial, and should therefore be dispensed with. Remember the old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt!” Yet I can’t conceive of a situation where the role of etiquette is more important since the husband-wife unit sets the standard within the home. And one’s home is one’s refuge and the quality of life there is vital to the fundamental well-being of any individual.

Despite this, I have found that in both the American and Japanese cultures the tendency is to relax the rules of etiquette almost entirely within the home. This is certainly reinforced by the fare shown on television and in movies where numerous questionable examples of “accepted behavior” are paraded before viewers. As most will agree, the level of these programs and movies is quite vulgar compared with that of thirty or forty years ago. The trend has been downhill especially since the 1960s and one wonders to what depths we can descend.

In looking at the role of etiquette in all of these various instances we see a common thread. The observance of certain practices and customs allows a person to interact smoothly within a given area of society. On the other hand, breaches of etiquette can produce sanctions against the individual which, in extreme cases, may result in the deprivation of life or liberty.

In this day and age, many eschew the practice of good manners believing such behavior to be unnecessary, empty, and downright old-fashioned. I think such people have not been taught the origin and function of the expected behavior and therefore cannot rationally relate it to any useful social purpose. We might instinctively grasp the necessity of observing certain societal rules of behavior, but are at a loss to explain the mechanism of how etiquette functions as the grease of the social engine.


I think that one way of understanding etiquette can be gleaned from a martial arts analogy. Take the concept of maai. Maai is the distance or combative interval between two opponents. Choosing and maintaining the correct maai is the key to a successful attack or defense. Failure to adopt a correct maai results in injury or death. Through the forms of etiquette the metaphorical maai of all concerned parties is defined and maintained during the course of their interaction. A safe distance is achieved thus leading to a predictible outcome: the preservation of social order. A lapse in the observance of the expected behavior produces a shift in this psychological spacing. One party finds his space violated and feels a need to take retaliatory measures. The threatened person may then bring to bear the powers of sanction of the group to punish the violator. Viewed in this way, etiquette is closely related to the notion of territoriality in a behavioral context.

Gradually with the passage of time, customs and manners change to reflect the shifting values of a society. With the decline in morality characteristic of our age, I think that we will eventually reach a point where new forms of behavior are routinely adopted which no longer serve the purpose of maintaining social order and the preservation of individual well-being. I refer to such trends as the breakdown of the family unit, religious values, and general standards of morality we find occurring all around us. Perhaps, this is one of the forces behind the nostalgia for an earlier age where the notions of right and wrong and proper etiquette seemed clearer and more simple.


  • I remember reading one of O’Sensei’s doka, translated by John Stevens Sensei. This was at least a decade ago, and I don’t remember it totally. O’Sensei said something about Aikido being the art of politics. That word, amidst all his wonderful thoughts, made me think of phoniness and baby-kissing. So I was initially taken aback. Reading this piece in its entirety soon might help me understand just what the Founder and Stevens Sensei mean.

  • This is a lot to think about. First I would like to address the military salute. I did ROTC during my first semester of college. At one time, a POC (Professional Officer Corps) who had already been to camp and signed a contract with the military, told a few of us that the reason we salute at a downward angle instead of upward like other countries is that the U.S. has never surrendered in a war. This was the only time I have heard that, so I’m not sure of its validity. I can’t recall all the terms, but my “group” leader, also a POC, walked toward me on campus. We were both in uniform, and I had my backpack over my left shoulder with a purpose. Amidst a group of other students in casual apparel, I saluted him, we both said each other’s names as “Mr.[last name].” When I passed by him, I lowered my hand. I didn’t analyze it much, but it felt really good to communicate such mutual respect.

    As far as bowing, some Westerners get a little freaked out by that. Watching a Muslim in America take time out of his or her workday to face Mecca and bow repeatedly is an act of worship. There can be confusion in other countries in what the Japanese do as a form of respect, often like a handshake or a daps fist pump. You were quite comprehensive about the significance of the respect-bow, Pranin Sensei, but I would like to add one thing. I would usually enjoy a sincere bow to a fellow student or Sensei because of the mutual respect and everything you mentioned, but also because it would restore my beginner-mind at times when I felt I knew more than I did.

    Familiarity can breed contempt, but it can conversely breed content. Deep insight into one’s situation, instead of thinking with only the heart, the metaphorical organ that Vladimir Nabokov proclaimed “a foolish thinker,” often leads to the realization of the danger of taking great things for granted.

    Comfortable ma-ai for a person raised in America is different for someone raised elsewhere. For example, Latinos tend to feel comfortable much in much closer proximity to others than most Americans of European descent. Most Americans need their three feet of space. I believe Aikido training with so many strangers has narrowed my radius of comfort to a degree.

    I will leave this with a cookie fortune from a Chinese restaurant that I have been carrying in my wallet for a few years now:

    “Even as the cell is the unit of the organic body, so the family is the unit of society.”

    Lucky numbers: 2,46,5,18,4,38


  • Well said, Stanley! I also often see a lack of etiquette in the home. Athletes usually show respect to each other before and after the event by shaking hands, touching gloves, and even hugging each other. Another form of respect is playing by the rules. Watching MMA, I wonder if some don’t intentionally use the groin kick (lack of respect). I think contemporary North American society is definitely on the short side when it comes to etiquette. You see some etiquette on the roads but not enough. Sometimes I think we overdo etiquette in Aikido classes — bowing every time we change partners, start a new technique, and even embellishing the bow by clapping hands or staying down for extended periods of time (clearing adopting ancient Japanese forms of etiquette); and it’s decidedly rigidly hierarchical at that — the higher you are the less you have to bow. Half the time the mutual bows are half-hearted and downright sloppy anyway. Ultimately, respect is something you carry in your heart and grows from the inside out. When you practice with someone you can feel their degree of respect regardless of whether or how they bow. I agree too, though, that it is interesting and insightful to see respect as a form of self-defense (don’t make enemies).

  • This is a subject close to my heart, my sensei always conducted himself in daily life with good manners, what he was like on the tatami, he was the same person in the street, he sought to embody the ideal, that aikido/budo begins and ends with sincere etiquette, this was one of his most endearing qualities, as a man and aikido martial arts practitioner.

    On reflection of his life and teaching, and the noted emphasis in the records of the old masters, I have come to value, that it is of vital importance that dojo etiquette be maintained, otherwise budo descends into nothing more than senseless violence, in which no one needs any training, unless we are but brute beasts seeking to devour one another.

    In my studies I am coming to learn of the nature and real value of aikido dojo etiquette, as I have mentioned before, the key to budo and real martial arts ability lies in the beginning, in other words, the secrets are concealed and yet revealed in the very beginning.

    For most martial art practitioners this usually is in the basics, but I have learned, that one must begin at an earlier stage than that, and for most people they are often stumped at this point.

    When I start to teach students the way we enact our dojo etiquette, both the why and the how, they are often amazed at the results, since I believe that the dojo etiquette is not only good manners and a safety protocol, but the key foundation to true martial ability, for contained within the dojo etiquette are some of the secrets to the internal dynamics and external mechanics of aiki.

    Though some may scoff and ridicule such things, I believe the major secrets of aiki are preserved and presented to us in the dojo reigi saho, if we would only but see.

    For aiki is the path of true meekness, that we may live in peace.

  • STATISTICS – FACT – SCIENCE – MEASURED Dojos without etiquette have a considerably higher injury rate.

    Dropping the ego a few notches is a small price to pay for all concerned going home intact and happy instead of hospital.
    Budo and combat training without etiquette and benign goals is thuggery.
    If you want a punch bag, go out and buy one. Second hand partly damaged test crash dummies can be purchased from motor car testing companies for under $1M.
    Without respect, we cease being human. Not just a show of respect but the real deal.
    What’s a human body worth?
    What’s health worth?
    What’s intact brain cells worth?
    Taisho GROW UP!
    Power without wisdom and respect is dead in the water, an express train without brakes and steering heading over a cliff at high speed.
    As the song goes, “ don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone..”

  • Nice article Stan. Well put. I was taught the meaning of respect and the action of bowing the first time I joined a class many years ago. Have been doing it ever since with the same respect as I always have. Find it odd when I go to other dojos and it is not practiced but that is ok for them. I still do it for me and what I believe.
    Well said Nev. Unfortunately he probably won’t grow let alone up. Why bother reading this article if that is the only response Taisho can come up with. Too many times getting smashed in the head methinks?

  • Dear Pranin Sensei

    First, I apologize for my English.

    I just wanted to make some considerations about this topic, in wich I totally agree about the statement on the correlation Etiquette > Dojo Safety.

    First of all, i think is also a matter of timing, knowing what you have to do and how you have to do it saves time. Which in the Japanese point of view is paramount, reducing to essentials is the heart of zen culture and having rules in the dojo should have the additional function (to safety) of squeezing the maximum practice in the least time possible. I think this aspect of etiquette should be noted, mostly in modern days when the time of practice is little, if you work of course.

    But the drawback of strict rules in my opinion is ignorant alienation, acquiring automatism is okay to learn a technique or a behavior, but is more important to not create mindless drones which do things without asking themselves why.