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"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."

- Shunryu Suzuki -

Being a beginner can be overwhelming.  We don't know where to stand, how to bow, what to call who, even how to put on a belt!  This primer is intended to help beginners navigate the traditions and rituals found in traditional Karate.


There is a ton of etiquette practices in Japanese culture!  It can be mind-boggling to us in the West.  But don't sweat it too much...we are all learning as we go along, you're not alone!  Here are a few main points to learn right off the bat to get you on your way:

      • Bare your feet.  We train barefoot're going to have to lose the shoes and socks.  Place your shoes, heels in, neatly against the wall beside the door.

      • Bend at the waist.  Karate means "Way of the Empty-Hand" and Dojo means "Place of the Way".  It's a revered and honoured training deserves our respect for all the sweat, blood and tears it's taken from us over the years.  At the front of the Dojo is the place were we hang a photo of our founder Chitose O-Sensei.  When we enter the Dojo we bow to the front to show appreciation for what he's given to us.
        In Karate we bow standing up as well as from a kneeling position (Seiza).  From standing simply place your feet together, and your hands open and pressed onto the side of your legs; from this position bend at the waist, keeping your back and head in a straight line, until you reach around 15 degrees angle from vertical and then smoothly return to vertical.  The important thing to remember is to NOT round your back or tuck your chin into your chest!
        From Seiza, reach forward with your left hand first, touching your fingertips to the floor in front of you.  Next do the same with your right hand, letting your thumbs and forefingers touch.  Again, keeping your back and head straight, bend at the waist until you reach about 30 degrees from vertical.  Your nose should then be directly above the the triangle shape formed by your thumbs and forefinger. Return to vertical.

      • Get dressed up.  The uniform we use in Karate consists of a Gi (white top and pants) and an Obi (belt).  The colour of your Obi, indicates the rank you have attained through training and grading.  As you progress your Obi gets darker.  We treat our Karate Gi/Obi with respect, keeping it clean and storing it properly between training sessions.  The following videos by Seishin International provide excellent examples of how this should be done.

      • RUN!  When the Head Instructor yells SHUGO! it's time to hustle.  Karate is a martial art and has much of its traditions steeped in military discipline.  When you hear Sensei yell at the start of class (even if you don't know what he or she is saying!), run onto the dojo floor and line up facing the front where O-Sensei's picture hangs (Shomen).  The order of the lineup is based on rank as shown in the diagram below.  Your place as a beginner is at the back, not because you are undeserving of being up front, but because you get to see everyone else and how they do's the best seat in the house!  From the back of the class you can learn by watching and mimicking what the students ahead of you are doing. 

      • Lose the bling.  It's not a good idea to wear jewelry when training as it can injure you or others so remember to remove any earings and rings before class begins.  It's also highly recommended to keep your finger and toenails clipped short so that you don't accidentally scratch your training partners.


We use Japanese words regularly as part of our training and so here is a basic primer to get you started:

      • Sensei (pronounced "sen-say") means "person born before another".  In Karate we use this term to refer to our instructors.  Generally speaking we use this term to indicate somebody has attain the level of blackbelt or yudansha.
      • Senpai (pronounced "sen-pie") can be considered somebody who is a "mentor."  We use this term to refer to other students who are not at the level of black belt yet, but who are of greater rank than you.
      • Onegaishimasu (pronounced "oh-nay-guy-she-mus") is said to somebody at the start of training, often with a partner, and is accompanied by a bow.  Here is a great article explaining it's full meaning:
      • Domo arigato gozaimashita (prounouned "do-mo-ari-ga-toe go-zay-ma-shi-ta") is a polite form of saying "thank you" in the past tense, or "thank you for that".  In the dojo we often say this to a partner at the end of our training with them or when we are given something by somebody else, particular a Sensei.
      • Numbers:  We count out loud in Japanese when we are doing repetitive drills in class.  You will learn how to count from one to ten quite quickly!
        1. Ichi (prounounced "Ichy")  
        2. Ni
        3. San
        4. Shi
        5. Go
        6. Roku
        7. Shichi
        8. Hachi
        9. Kyu
        10. Ju
**Beyond the number ten, we simply say Ju-ichi (10-1), Ju-ni (10-2), etc. Twenty it becomes Ni-ju (2-10), thirty becomes San-ju (3-10), etc.  The exception is forty, which is said as Yon-ju where "yon" is an alternate word for 4.  One hundred is Hyaku.


At the end of each class we recite a poem in Japanese that was written by our founder Tsuyoshi Chitose.  It's called Showa and it is our guide to becoming a better karateka and a better person.  You can see it in both Japanese and English below.  We also recite a quote from Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern Karate and O-Sensei's Sensei.  These two statements remind us of the true reason we come to the Dojo.

Ware Ware Karate-do oh Shugyo Surumonowa,
Tsuneni Bushido Seishin oh Wasurezu,
Wa to Nin Oh Motte Nashi,
Soshite Tsutomereba Kanarazu Tassu

(Listen to it here)
We who study karate-do,
Must never forget the spirit of the warriors way.
With peace, perseverance and hard work,
We will reach our goal.

Dr. Tsuyoshi Chitose,
1898 - 1984

"The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants."

Gichin Funakoshi, 1869 - 1957

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