Dojo Protocol
by Butch Bonner

Protocol and etiquette are words used extensively in martial arts. Protocol by definition means “Forms of ceremony used in a particular theater”. In this case the theater would be the dojo. Etiquette is defined as “Practices or form prescribed by social convention as determined by society or Authority”. Both are words to describe “correct behavior” under certain circumstances. For our purposes, we are discussing correct behavior in the dojo or martial arts related events.  For the most part, protocol is no more than polite behavior. The problem is that in these United States, polite behavior is a thing of the past.  So when a new student is prodded to respond to a question by saying “Yes Sir or Hai Sensei”, they look at you as if you just sprouted horns.  In many cases this is the first time anyone has required anything more then a “Yeah or uh-huh” response.  So, maybe it would be a better idea to consider how the Europeans approach manners, etiquette and protocol. To most of us in the U.S., we find the Europeans to be somewhat stuffy in how they do things, but a little closer view finds that they tend to be somewhat more observant and they’re actions are by intent as opposed to by accident.

So lets approach this step by step and maybe we can “briefly” cover most of the bases to some degree.

Intentional Actions: Everything one does in a dojo should be done by intention. Many of us spend our lives going through the motions without thinking about what we’re doing. This should not be the case in life, or in a dojo. For many this begins a journey of coming to know ourselves, and why we do the things we do. It is important to recognize that everything done in a dojo has purpose and intent designed to improve those who train. To that end, great care should be taken in performing ones responsibilities in the dojo.

Monthly Dues: Once you’ve decided to train, one of the first things to be taken care of is paying for your training. Dues are collected at various times, monthly, quarterly, and even annually. But whenever they are, they should be on time and in full. If for some reason you can not pay on time or must make a partial payment, notice should be given to your instructor as soon as possible prior to the time for payment. Every effort should be made then to make up the payment at your earliest opportunity.  Civility, polite decorum, gentleness and form should all be observed in this process.  One way to do this is to place your payment in an envelope along with the student’s name on the teacher’s desk or some designated place prior to the due date. It should go without saying that it is considered bad manners for Sensei to have to ask you for your dues.

Beginning Training: Certain protocols are different from one dojo to the next but most are much the same. Usually before or upon breaking the plane of the dojo door, one removes their shoes. Practical reasons are to keep the dojo cleaner. Metaphysical reasons are that one leave the problems of the day, and comes to train with a clean mind.  This is a holdover from the Shinto philosophy, which said that everything had a spirit, wood, trees, dirt etc. They didn’t want to bring bad spirits into the homes on their shoes.

Bowing,  A sign of respect:  If one equates respect with “truly important” one may come close to understanding the intent of this action. One should bow to the instructor at the beginning and the end of class and whenever required to do anything. When given an instruction one should bow to Sensei and move quickly to accomplish the task at hand. One should bow upon asking questions and receiving answers form Sensei. One should also bow when entering the dojo and upon coming onto the training floor, as this is the “way place” or the place where one practices how to perfect living.  All of these things help the student to help rid himself of the ego that we all carry around with us.  As point of interest, whenever you bow to anyone, they will return that bow or be in danger of succumbing to their own ego, and Sensei’s wrath, including Sensei. 


Sensei:  Sensei means “One who goes before” a translation that means this person has traveled this path before you and is here to help you on your own journey through the world of martial arts, and in many cases the world of adulthood. Because he has dedicated himself to this task, he should be regarded with much respect. For he does not just teach karate chops, but physical and mental discipline, respect, proper attitude, and spiritual principles.  He should be regarded with the honor one might have for a favorite revered uncle. This doesn’t mean that Sensei is better then every one else, in fact he should be more humble than everyone else in the dojo. It means that he should be regarded with respect for his knowledge, not just his knowledge of fighting techniques, but rather for his knowledge of martial arts principals and how they apply to life. Consequently, one should not tolerate negative things being said about ones instructor.  When such a situation occurs either leave, or tell the offender that they are speaking about someone you respect highly and you don’t appreciate it. Fighting over this is not an issue, unless of course it is to defend your self from physical attack.

The Dojo:  The dojo is a stark place, a place of contrast. It has been called a microcosm of the world. For eventually every type and kind of person will come through the doors to train. While most will not stay, it does provide those that do with different personality types with which to work. Every place in the dojo has significance.  Sensei will face the room from the front, center of the room. The most senior student will take a place at the right front of the room looking from the rear. Next senior student will be on his left and so on.  Sometimes each belt has a line of students on down to white belt, while other schools will line them all on one line providing there is room. Usually in a traditional dojo, a “shinza” or shrine will reside near the right front corner of the training hall. This is the most important place in the dojo. The shinza, is there to remind us that our journey through the world of martial arts is spiritual as well as physical.  This is not to be confused with a religious artifact. The shinza is not worshipped like a religious object. But it is to be respected, for it reminds us that the strength and resolve that we train with is so due to the spirit of heart with which we train. When moving close to the shinza, one should honor it with a “rei” or bow as one would an instructor. For this reminds us of those honored teachers who trained before us and handed down to us the system we train in now.

All this bowing may make one wonder about what sort of attitude is required in training in martial arts. The attitude of the student is a direct reflection on whether he is training in a dojo or school. In a dojo one should have a humble attitude. Not like a beggar, but one who is appreciative of that which they are learning. And since all are still learning, all should reflect this attitude, from the newest student to the Chief Instructor. The student should be grateful that they have an instructor who is interested in teaching the myriad of subjects related to martial arts. Inversely, the instructor should be equally grateful for the students who avail themselves so that he might perfect his craft.  This might not always be evident, for along with teaching Sensei is responsible for maintaining order and decorum. Even when it is obvious that he is not pleased with some indiscretion, it should still be handled with civility and respect to those with whom he is dealing.

There is a decided difference between a dojo and a martial arts school, or studio. Maybe the simplest way to explain this is that a school or studio has a western approach to an eastern idea. A dojo is decidedly eastern in concept and format. In a school a student goes to learn martial arts. In a dojo, the student learns to divest himself of ego. In a school one will strive to achieve in martial arts to be better then his fellow students. In a dojo, a student is taught to be better then he is. Personal attention and achievement is a goal in a school while in a dojo, one strives to be an integral part of the group. That is one purpose of everyone wearing white gis (uniform). Typically the only distinction between student and instructor is the obi (belt). It is done in part so that every one can identify with the whole and lessen the importance of the self.  To many schools, measuring the student is an external exercise, measuring technique, ability, kata, etc. The dojo should measure the student by attempting to see the spirit of the individual. The dojo (meaning, way place) is a place where martial arts are taught as a way of educating students to ethics and principals necessary for life’s journey.  For in reality, the “way place” is the place where we learn not only a way to protect ourselves, but a way to live. In fact, they are one in the same. 

When the student is in training class, he or she may find themselves in many situations. Training with others, listening to instructors, training with fellow students, or following the dictates of the Sensei. All these should be done with an attitude of respect. For Sensei, those you work with and yourself, this respect is essential. There should be no squabbling among students, nor should there be discussions about others behind their backs. This is your dojo family, and are very likely to be the people you train with for years to come. Any and all conflicting situations shall be dealt with in an honorable fashion. For this is part of training ourselves as well and is very much part of what the martial arts culture should be.

Class Attendance: Attendance is a subject of much debate for martial artist, and rules vary from instructor to instructor. So let us say that one should spend time understanding what the instructor from your dojo wants from you in terms of class attendance, and non-attendance.  Usually there will exist a schedule for class times and depending on your training level, you will be assigned a set time to attend as you will be training with those of your ability as a rule. Sometimes Sensei will ask that you attend a different class for scheduling purposes for the greater good of the whole dojo. Other times he will ask you to attend a class of your seniors. In this event, you are being recognized as one who has been diligent and requires more training than is available in your currant class. It may seem to you that Sensei is making things difficult for you by asking you to attend what is usually an additional class, but if fact this recognition is an honor and should be welcomed. Do all you can to attend.

If you can’t attend class, you should make it your business to let Sensei know at your earliest convenience. For the agreement you made with him was; He would be there to teach and you would be there to learn. Many students often think that the lack of their presence would not be missed.  The result of that thinking is that many an instructor would spend hours waiting on students that didn’t show for class.  Whole classes have been known not to show, each member thinking that the others would make an appearance, only to find that no one but the instructor arrived for class.  He will stay usually for the allotted time for fear that he will miss someone, who for some unexpected reason couldn’t get to class on time. It happens a lot. When it does, Sensei is reminded that he has not conveyed information regarding respect to his students near well enough. It also means the students are regarding their relationship with the instructor with something less than the appropriate respect. So, effort should be made to work out, and maintain, a mutually agreeable training schedule for both parties. Schedule changes are normal and tolerable, disrespect should be neither.

Ceasing Training: Whether it’s to be temporary or permanent. When you decide to stop training, the first thing you should do is speak with your teacher. There are many reason why students stop training most of which are justified. Money, time, schedule conflicts, are certainly serious reasons which require a serious look at ceasing ones training. However, the teacher sees the student as one who at some point will be unhappy with his decision to stop training. Only one out of two hundred people that train in karate will reach Sho-Dan. Every student I ever spoke to after they quit told me that they wanted to return to it, or were sorry they stopped. People that stop training for monetary reasons may be able to work out some means of payment with the instructor that is beneficial to them both.  Speak with the instructor and see if you can work out something. Most people have financial difficulties at one time or another, so this is more common than you may think. Because the instructor has time and effort in your training, he doesn’t want you to stop. Believe it or not, he is your biggest fan. He wants you to succeed, and achieve all the things you want for yourself. He is willing to help, but is only able to do so if you talk with him and allow him the opportunity. 

Visiting Other Instructors: This is an area that usually gets a good deal of concern on the part of the students and Sensei alike. Instructors are wary of other instructors and how they teach, especially if he doesn’t know the instructor. This apprehension should be based on concern for the student and usually not for fear of losing that student to the other instructor. Because of this it is always a good idea for the student to ask his instructor for permission to train with the other instructor. Like religion, a good deal of proselytizing goes on among unscrupulous instructors, so students are targeted by some instructors and should be wary. Check with your instructor before you venture out on your own. Besides it is never a good idea for your teacher to find out second handed that your training elsewhere. It is an embarrassment to him, and it should be to you.

The same is true if you decide to change your dojo. Do your instructor the courtesy of telling him that you want to change to a different dojo.  No instructor wants to loose a student that he’s put time and effort in training for any reason, but most assuredly not to another school. But if that is what the student feels is necessary, for what ever reason, sit down and talk to your instructor and tell him what you’d like to do. He may not agree, he may not like it, but he will respect you for it. More importantly, you will respect yourself for it. There are times when student and instructors have personality clashes. Optimally, they should stay and train together, and use their differences as a tool to better themselves, but if they find that they can’t get past their own personal problems then discretion is the better part of valor and they should move on. Dignity and respect for all involved is the attitude, which must be maintained. Many teachers will send the student to his new dojo with a letter of recommendation, assuring the receiving teacher that everyone has accepted this decision and no problems exist between the instructors. Much enmity and animosity that exists between schools today could have been averted because these simple courtesies were not followed.

Rank:  Kyu (ranks below black belt) and Dan (degrees of black belt) are viewed in many ways by many people in martial arts. It may well be the single largest point of controversy in any system and certainly between systems. The reason for this controversy is that it is widely misunderstood. The original purpose for rank was so that an instructor could know at what level a student was operating within his system and he knew what he needed to teach the student. When one has many students this can be a difficult matter to keep up with. In early martial arts, there was only white and black belts in terms of rank. Jigaro Kano, Sensei, developed a ranking system by use of belts for his judo system. Other systems seemed to gravitate to it from there. It has taken on a life of its own in the sense that it is now used as a motivational tool for students.  This alone is not a problem, but with the advancement of the student, should come the understanding that ones rank should only be an indication of his knowledge base. Unfortunately, it has been so distorted that we now think of Sho-Dans or 1st degree black belts as being “experts” in martial arts. This is far from the truth. In fact, Sho-dan is the level when serious training should begin. Never the less, most systems still use ranking. So, on the outset, one should understand they should never approach Sensei to be promoted.  In the old schools of Japan and Okinawa, this act would probably get you dismissed from the school. It is akin to asking ones high school teacher for an “A” prior to being tested. It also means that the student is attempting to direct the instructor in his duties. To serious instructors, this is a serious affront. When and if Sensei ask you to test or decides to promote you, it should be considered an honor, and accepted with abject humility, for in spite of how good you think you are, it is primarily due to his efforts, and patience. 

Students Uniform: This item of clothing is like that of a football or baseball uniform, it identifies that person as a   karate student. Since karate should be the development of the student in a spiritual and philosophical sense, as well as physical, karate should be a somewhat private matter. Therefore, karate-gi’s should not be worn outside the dojo except for martial arts related events. To do so is considered an outward demonstration of ego with which Sensei will most assuredly not be pleased. Students who do wear their uniforms outside the dojo will eventually attract unwanted attention from those who merely want to tease or bully him, to see if he really knows karate. But it is the student who has set this situation up by wearing his uniform like a trophy.

Students are required to obtain a training uniform or Gi which should be worn during all training sessions in the home dojo or when training away at other martial arts activities. Your uniform should be kept in a clean and neat state of repair. It is not necessary to iron your gi, but it should be fold neatly upon laundering so as not be overly wrinkled. One should not wear a gi to class that looks as though it has been slept in. Acquiring a gi can be done though Sensei, and will be less expensive then paying retail for it.  While it may seem like a good idea, refrain from adorning your gi with patches. Sensei will let you know what will be appropriate for your uniform. Care of your uniform is the responsibility of the student, not his mother, wife or caretaker, and they will not be doing the pushups in the event Sensei should find a problem with what the student is wearing.

Other items of interest regarding the student’s uniforms, are that students themselves should be relatively clean. Although many people work with their hands care should be taken to insure that hands and feet are clean since this is what we spend much of our time working with. It is only a matter of time before you will put your hands on someone else and they you, or you will be working with another’s feet, and they yours in the course of your karate training.  

As a matter of safety jewelry is forbidden on the training floor. Please do not wear rings, watches, ear rings, necklaces, ankle bracelets or chains in class. It too is only a matter of time before you cut someone with a ring or brake an expensive bracelet. The only exception to this rule would be a wedding band. Also beginners should ensure that the clothing you wear to class should not have any metal or cutting edges on them, such as belts until such time as you can obtain a gi.

Also while on the subject of acquiring items for your training, please refrain from buying equipment for dojo use. If you want to buy something to train with, check with Sensei so he can help you buy what you need. Avoid buying what appears to be what you need. There is an unreal amount of junk out there posing as martial arts equipment. Weapons, sparring equipment and such would be item of question.

In addition to the above, one should never bring food to class, or chew gum in class. The nature of our practice makes it far too easy to become strangled on chewing gum and the like.  The one exception is bottled water  .