Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Respect vs. Rank

I read Felicia's post on respect a few weeks ago (R-E-S-P-E-C-T). It was good, I thought about whether we had problems in our dojo and I really didn't feel like it was an issue beyond some of the kids I have seen. I haven't really seen this problem in adults, we all have fun and respect each other. Well, that is, until last night.

Any dojo you go to will have different rules and traditions. When I studied under Sensei Nick Guinn, we just came into the dojo, put on our belts, and hung out till class started. Once class started, things were serious and formal. We bowed in very formally, going down with the right knee first, then the left, right hand on the floor, then the left, then you bowed your forehead to the floor, and when you say up you brought your right hand back to your lap, then your left, stood with your right leg first, then your left. There was a specific reason for the order you did everything in, etc. I don't know if he still does things that way now, but I really liked the formality of it. It definitely got you focused for class.

At my current dojo, they ask that you kneel down when putting on or taking off your belt, and if a black belt of any degree is putting on their belt that you also kneel down out of respect. We didn't do this at my old dojo, but I make every effort to do it here, because that is their tradition. I don't like the way we bow in at my new school as much. It feels very casual compared to what I am used to. (If you bow from the waist you always bow lower than your superiors, at least according to the Japanese culture, etc etc) But, I do it their way because that is their tradition at this dojo. 

What I am getting around to saying is that last night, after class, it was late, there were only 2 students left in the dojo, a green belt and a black belt, they were talking in the lobby and the instructor and instructor in training had just stepped back into the office to have a meeting. I bowed before I left the dojo floor, and took my belt off in the lobby. I forgot to kneel down.

The green belt made a point to tell me that I hadn't done so and that I was disrespectful. (As a side note, anyone who knows me knows that I take martial arts VERY seriously and I do my best to respectful to students and teachers a like, and to follow tradition when applicable.) She tried to flick me, but I flinched away and gave her a look that said, 'Don't touch me'. She moved in closer and flicked me hard on the arm. So, I gently swung my arm out and tapped her with my belt on the leg in response. She then proceeded to try to kick me. I blocked, and remained on the defensive while she kicked and punched at me. I did not attack her back. At one point she was able to grab the back of me neck, as she had backed me up into one of the dojo's display cases, and bend me over. At that point the black belt stepped in and said something and broke up the fight.

The green belt then said something along the lines of she couldn't believe how disrespectful I was, starting a fight with a green belt. 

Excuse me, but you, miss green belt, are NOT my instructor, it is not your place to scold me or punish me for not following dojo etiquette. And in addition, escalating the situation from flicking and tapping to full on kicking and punching is not ok. What I said was "I think you're the one who started it." I gathered my things and I left the dojo. 

What this brings me down to is this: Who's responsibility is to reprimand students? And, are underclassmen required to show respect to disrespectful upperclassmen?

My opinion: 
Upperclassmen are there to assist and to guide their lower classmen. I feel that punishment and rule enforcement should be left up to the instructor. Granted the instructor was not present at the time, but a simple, "Next time you should kneel when you take your belt off." without the flicking would have easily sufficed. Upperclassmen should be there to set an example for the lower classmen. I do not mind them gently reminding students of etiquette or tradition, but it is not their responsibility to enforce the law.

Respect is earned, not given. Obviously, common courtesy dictates that we should be polite and respectful to everyone as often as possible. However, if someone is blatantly rude to you, or disrespectful, are you required to continue to be respectful to them, especially when they outrank you? My stance, no. (Nick has a post that somewhat touches on this topic as well. You can find it here) I'm not sure I really believe killing people with kindness is always the right approach. I had one instructor at my current dojo tell me (when I was a white belt having issues with a yellow belt in class who just wanted to talk instead of practice) that I am only required to be respectful as far as the dojo rules go, which means I kneel down when a black belt is putting on or taking off their belt, and I am not allowed to teach anyone anything unless asked to do so by the instructor. That was it. Obviously I don't want to be a complete ass-hole to them and curse them out or go out of my way to try to hurt them during training or something equally mean like that, but I am not necessarily required to be friendly and respectful to them either.  

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not encouraging people to start smart mouthing each other and being rude, but I am also not going to allow myself to get walked on either. It can sometimes seem like a difficult line to walk, but you should not allow anyone to use their position to bully you around in any sort of situation. Ever. If you do stand up for yourself, people will possible accuse you of being a bitch, or having a bad attitude. I have had this happen. Which is why its important to stand up for yourself with tact and grace instead of sinking to their level and being rude in response, but be firm. Do not give in. 

Upperclassmen have a responsibility to guide and protect lower ranking students, not bully or punish. (However, as always, I'm sure there are some exceptions to this opinion. Sometimes people just need to be put in their place by a fellow classmate and not the instructor, however these situations are probably pretty few and far between.) Upperclassmen should be setting an example by being polite and respectful to both their superiors and their lower classmen. 

Lowerclassmen should be respectful to their upperclassmen, they should be attentive to feedback, but they should not have to tolerate bullying or disrespect just because the color of their belt is different. (or the same). 

I'm sure what happened with me last night could have been handled in a more tactful way, but sometimes things happen very fast and we don't think about it until after the situation is over.

Has anyone had a similar situation? How do you stand up for yourself without being overtly rude? When these sorts of situations happen, should you take them to the instructor or deal with them yourself? I'm curious to see how other people have dealt with it in the past and what other perspectives people have on the issue of respect versus rank. Please share with me! There is always a better way to deal with something, and I am always looking for ideas, things to think about, and things to help me out as I make my way through the ranks and eventually with when I become an instructor and need to guide and mentor my own students.  

Thanks for listening. Looking forward to your comments. 

~Samurai Girl Sahara


  1. This started as two paragraphs and grew because I wanted to cover all angles. The TL;DR are the first two paragraphs.

    Groups you train with are like families. Rules of etiquette are traditional and often functional (rituals induce certain mindsets). There is a right way to act towards others in a neutral environment (e.g., kneeling while removing your belt), and a right way to act towards others while reprimanding them. Much of what determines tradition is its functionality; contrary to popular belief, traditions are not stagnant, they are dynamic: if something becomes useless and only hurtful to the group, either it will be dropped or the group will weaken and maybe die. As such, there is as much a right way to reprimand as there is to show respect to superiors.

    Flicking or attacking underclassmen is not an effective way to remind someone to be respectful. You've learned how to be respectful, and you do so regularly, and you forgot in one instance. How is attacking you after verbally confronting the problem in any way useful to anyone? Why should you allow someone to attack you? -- there is no benefit to anything other than ego.

    I have never studied Japanese Martial Arts and do not know the extent to which Japanese culture is infused in them. However, I believe that I understand people and culture in a general sense. The point of learning martial arts is to learn about life, about how to live, and (at least in this country) only a little about how to fight.

    The only time I can think of physical injury as a way of teaching respect shows up in Capoeira. Some groups don't have ranks, and there is no telling how long the other person you are playing with has studied. If you play rough, they may play rough back, and you might eat some pain. If you play rough with someone that's new, their more experienced friends will have their back; don't be surprised when they suddenly kick you in the head or chest for real, or slam you on the ground, or slap your ears, or who knows what. The message and lesson of respect in Capoeira are analogous to those in life -- play it safe, have a good time, smile, play to learn rather than to hurt or humiliate, and be very wary of others because who knows when someone might actually have it in for you, especially if you start something.

    But that's different from your situation -- yours is entirely about social respect. If anything, it makes me sad that someone that has trained in that dojo longer than you would try to exact physical punishment for forgetting a fairly small tradition of respect, and then try to attack you and injure you when you refuse to go through with it. That behavior helps no one, and if anything, earns them nothing but shame and demonstrates their lack of self-control.

  2. Wow. Sorry you had to experience that in your training hall! I don't think it was OK for either the green belt (by reprimanding you physically) or the black belt nearby (by not stepping in sooner) to act as they did. Dojo respect is not just from superior to "underling" (<-- and I hate that term, BTW) - it MUST go both ways. In other words you get what you give and should always give what you get.

    The physical part floors me. Attacking is not really something martial arts (particularly Japanese MA) is training you to do. There should never be a first strike - at least that's my understanding - and that applies not only on the mat in kata and kumite but off of the mat as well. That the green belt doesn't get that and the black belt allowed a physical confrontation to transpire is not good at all.

    This seems so contrary to what budo is about, really. But sadly, I've seen this sort of power trip before - sometimes because folks are embarrassed or "out-knowledged" and other times because they think that's what they are supposed to do because some chucklehead treated them the same way (I once saw a 4th dan hit his second dan uke in the face so hard that he knocked out her contact lens - simply because she swept him onto his butt at a promotion the week before; ego-driven and ugly, that kind of stuff has no place in any training hall but he's an ass!). It's kinda sad, really.

    Ironical, when that same 4th dan hit me in the face THREE TIMES during a jabbing drill a few years before (I was a 7th kyu at the time), I told my sensei about it at the very next class. Not sure if my sensei ever spoke to the offending 4th dan about it, but apparently, it didn't change his behavior any. But my sensei also gave me some sound advice on how to deal with it if it happened again (hit him back immediately while saying "Like that, sir?" - which I would never have had the guts to do then and keeping my hands up always to block/protect my face so it would never happen again [<--now that advice I took :-)])...

    I would bring it to your instructor's attention, though - both to "rat" out the green belt who lost her daggone mind (because you don't know what her version of the story will be when she talks to him) and to seek advise on how you can handle the situation if it presents itself again. Ultimately, your instructor is responsible for how his/her students act in the dojo. Bringing it to his/her attention might go a long ways in heading off any weirdness that might happen in the future - either as a result of this incident or otherwise.

    Sending gentle hugs, SGS!

  3. Hi, SG:

    You said:"She tried to flick me, but I flinched away and gave her a look that said, 'Don't touch me'. She moved in closer and flicked me hard on the arm. So, I gently swung my arm out and tapped her with my belt on the leg in response. She then proceeded to try to kick me. I blocked, and remained on the defensive while she kicked and punched at me. I did not attack her back. At one point she was able to grab the back of me neck, as she had backed me up into one of the dojo's display cases, and bend me over. At that point the black belt stepped in and said something and broke up the fight."

    I say: Something very, very wrong here ... did you take this up with the Dojo Head Instructor? In my view this is inexcusable for that green belt; for any practitioner of the martial way.

    You said: "Who's responsibility is to reprimand students? And, are underclassmen required to show respect to disrespectful upperclassmen?"

    I say: In my view only, if the green belt were your senior, i.e. sempai, then they do have an obligation to provide you with some proper mentoring but in a way that is respectful and of higher standards than what you mention here. As to respect shown in most traditional dojo mutual respect and manners are common and how they are applied in the dojo varies but in a nutshell you show all ranks and all levels the proper respect and manners of any human being. If this person has respectfully mentioned that "you forgot to kneel when you took off your obi" then your response would be something like, yes, thank you for reminding me; I will remember next time. Bow respectfully if a Sempai and move on. But, that is just me.

    And further more I would add:

    You are right, rule enforcement is the Sensei's prerogative and if the green belt felt strongly that some disrespect was intended, you didn't intend to do anything of the sort and they should have realized this, then take it to the dojo head instructor.

    You are also right in that respect is earned or what I say is I give respect unconditionally to everyone both known and new until they provide me some viable reason to not respect them. Just because one has been a member of the dojo longer or wears a higher level belt does not guarantee respect and I would say that if this is what occurs normally in this dojo the head instructor is at fault and must fix it immediately. Even the dojo Sensei has to "earn" the practitioners respect by word and deed, etc.

    I am truly sorry you had to endure this at that dojo. My advice even tho not asked for is you should first talk to the head instructor to find out their view and if necessary if the answer is less than it should be; run don't walk out and find another dojo, you don't need this and it is not proper.

    Ok, off the soap box.