Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Question of Etiquette

At the end of every class - right before rei - the sensei or the seipai always remind us of the three rules of every USA Goju dojo on the planet: everyone works, nothing is free and all start at the bottom - which brings me to the etiquette question burning in my mind today: If you are a black belt in say, Shotokan or TKD, what should you do with your obi if you decide to step on the mat in a Goju or Wado-Ryu class? It was my understanding that the practitioner should either:

1. wear his/her current rank but line up in the back of the class.
2. turn his/her obi knot to the back and line up in the back of the class.
3. ditch the obi altogether and line up in the back of the class or
4. don a white belt and line up accordingly.

Notice the trend?

Last night, a young woman who is about to test for nidan in Shorin-Ryu - but who has been coming to the college class gi-less for about a month or so - showed up in her Shorin-Ryu gi and black belt. She was allowed to line up directly behind the class shodans, which put her in front of some second and first kyus who have been training with Sensei F for four to five years or more. I got there just as we were falling in, so I'm not sure if she just arrived in gi and Sensei, out of respect for her rank, told her to fall in up front or what, but I'm pretty sure reishiki dictates that she should have deferred and respectfully lined up near the rear.

I really couldn't care less who lines up in front, but since Sensei F. always reminds the newbies in the back to look to the front row for guidance on how certain techniques are done, it seems like the front row should have folks in it who know what they are dong. Sure a front snap kick is a front snap kick, but kata is a whole 'nother ball of wax. And during the second half of class, any color belt in the room could have lead her through the kata she was working on/learning because it was a white belt kata not done in her style.

As summer was approaching last year, I toyed with the idea of studying a style like TKD to improve my kicking skills. I went so far as to sign up for the four free classes the dojang offered (although I later canceled due to some scheduling conflicts), but the idea of walking in to train in a new style wearing my black belt from my current style was never even a thought. I wouldn't wear my current rank to a Judo or Jujitsu class either, simply because I'm not a black belt in either of those styles.

At the summer dojo I finally settled in, a similar thing happened a while back: two students showed up to train who had black belts in other styles (Brazilian Jujitsu and Kung Fu), but lined up in back without even having to be asked. After about a month, the seipai pulled them aside and asked them to please start wearing their white belts to class. They've done so ever since...

Last night, I was the seipai - although I earned my shodan rank only five months ago. What do you think: is it time to channel my summer dojo's seipai and speak to our "new" black belt?


  1. Matters of etiquette are always very delicate. Often there are not clear cut guidelines on the right way to proceed and every dojo differs in how seriously they regard matters of etiquette. My husband and I recently joined a new jujitsu/kobudo club. I had never done jujitsu or kobudo before so it was obvious that I should wear a white belt (I'm 3rd kyu in karate). My husband on the other hand is a shodan in BJJA jujitsu and the new club we have joined is a World Jujitsu club (which is stylistically different). Sensei has allowed him to wear his black belt and is preparing him for nidan because he doesn't consider the stylistic differences to be too great and my husband is working his way through the whole syllabus to convert his style.

    In our karate club we are a little stricter on the etiquette regarding rank. If the newcomer has attained a coloured belt or black belt in another karate style and wishes to convert to our style then they must wear a white belt. However if they are just joining us for a few weeks as a visitor in order to continue training whilst they are away from home then they can maintain their rank - they may even be invited to teach us something from their style if they are a black belt.

    I think you need to consider whether your young woman is a temporary visitor (even if its a few months) or a new student to your style. If she is considered a visitor then it is perhaps not unreasonable that she maintains her rank (she will have worked hard to get it and deserves a bit of respect). However, if she is definately a new student of your style she should probably wear a white belt unless your style is so similar to hers that she could easily convert without having to go through all the ranks again. If you have no clear rules on how to proceed in this matter then perhaps a balance needs to be struck between maintaining respect to her and her achievements and maintaining repect to your club and its members.

  2. Sue,

    Newcomers to the style donning a white belt is how things are usually done - regardless of previous style, but for some reason, it didn't happen this time. She's not a temporary visitor; the class is held at a local college (which she attends) and started in September; she hasn't missed one. Normally, she wears sweats and a t-shirt, so the belt issue has never been an issue before.

    So my issue is if this is even my issue. If she talked to Sensei BEFORE she put her gi and belt on and he said "Fall in up front" then it is what is is. If she showed up in gi and belt, he might not have been taken by surprise - although we all knew she was testing for nidan at her home school soon. If she didn't speak to him first, he may just be kinda giving her time to figure it out - as was done in my summer/sister dojo with the other two black belts. She just simply may not know what she's supposed to do, but I would think that as a nidan candidate, she probably should.

    Thanks for your insight. I'm think I need to talk to my sensei about this first.

  3. It's always the sensei's call. I, personally, would prefer to don a white belt and line up as no different from other beginning students. However, in the one non-Isshinryu dojo I've trained in, the sensei was adamant that you wore the highest rank belt you had earned, and lined up with that rank. For me that meant wearing a brown belt from a different style and lining up in the front row. It was hideously uncomfortable. I was frequently senior student for the night - and I didn't even know their warm-up drills, let alone any of the kata.

    I think that experience had a lot to do with my deciding to drop back to white when I restarted Isshinryu training, even though my sensei gave me the option of retaining the brown, and simply not testing until I had gotten fully back up to speed (would have been a while, since I'd been out of training for about seven years). Our other black belt took that route (he's a sandan who had been out for 16 years), and it will probably be another year before he's caught up to what he's "supposed" to know to hold the rank he is.

  4. I hear you, PB - and you make perfect sense...

  5. I talked to my sensei last night (I know - can you say foot dragger?!?). He adamantly expressed his thoughts on the matter by letting us know he asked her to fall in up front. He said that her rank must be respected - even if it was earned in a different style. She tested for nidan over the weekend but wasn't in class last night. So, someone asked where she'll fall in when she next attends. Sensei said she'd fall in behind the class black belts - but before the mudansha/kyus (color belts) as long as she continues to wear her school gi (which is white). Once she "joins" the class (by that, I guess he meant "once she gets a black gi like ours), she'll be expected to wear a white belt and line up accordingly.

    Not sure what to say about that. I think feel the same way I did when I found out my dad was a Republican. Ouch...