Karate Etiquette: Everything You Need to Know

karate ethics

Dojo Etiquette in Karate

The Japanese word dojo, or training hall, has its origins in the Sanskrit word “bodhimandala,” meaning “place of enlightenment.”

As such, it is quite different from a gym or health club.

In a health club, for example, after a student pays his fee, he assumes that keeping the place clean is a service to be done by others, for which he/she has paid.

In the dojo, this is not so. Of course, students in a modern dojo pay a fee also.

However, a dojo becomes a special place only by the respect that the students as a group, or community, have for it.

If everyone believes that it is a place to study and perfect the self, then how could it be kept clean by others? It is our place.

We are making a shared commitment to it and to our practice. With a shared commitment comes a shared responsibility, including keeping the place spotless.

After each class, students together, regardless of rank, wipe the floor down with a rag.

This old tradition dates from the earliest times and is maintained in all traditional dojos.

This action, which is functional, is also symbolic of the need to make our egos smaller.

No matter what a student does on the outside—doctor, lawyer, businessman—he/she can clean the dojo alongside the people with whom he/she trains.

The dojo is a place to foster a sense of community and belonging because this is what gives martial arts a distinction from the isolated, alienated atmosphere that pervades other places of physical training.

In the karate dojo, there is a very strict, formalized etiquette, covering how to greet people, how to enter and leave the dojo, how to fix your uniform while on the floor, and how to tie your belt.

These little formalities are scrupulously observed by all students, not just by new students. Etiquette is not a question of rank.

There is a hierarchy in a traditional karate dojo. The hierarchy is based on the grade (white belt through brown belt) or rank (degrees within black belt) of the student.

A student’s level is a shorthand way of acknowledging his/her experience.

It is merely a way of indicating the amount of effort the student has put in to gain the particular experience that she or he has had in the dojo.

Belts are not a surrogate caste system. Courtesy is based on respect: for oneself, for others, and for the dojo, or training hall.

The basic expression of respect and courtesy, which comes from Japanese culture, is the bow.

At Seido Juku (a traditional form of Japanese Karate), every class begins and ends with a short period of zazen is considered the heart of Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhist practice.

Zazen’s aim is just sitting, that is, suspending all judgemental thinking and letting words, images, ideas, and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them.

At the beginning of class, it is used to clear the mind and focus it on the training ahead.

After class, it is used to think over what was done, and what needs to be done, and to prepare the student to go back out into the hurly-burly of the outside world.

The mechanics of two basic bows are described below.

Standing Bow

There are many variations on the hand positions for the bow, so the basic one is described.

Normally, the feet may be held shoulder-width apart, although it is more respectful to bring the soles of the feet together (heisoku dachi).

The hands are held in a fist at your sides, slightly in front, so as to be in view.

When you bow, the knees are slightly bent, and the bow is from the waist.

The more profound the bow, the deeper the bend.

The head also goes down, which is very important to the symbolism.

When we bow in the dojo, usually we also say “Osul”, which is a contraction of osu-shinobu.

It dates back to the rough days of the samurai period, and it is basically a greeting and salutation.

However, it means something more profound. “Shinobu” means patience.

The way (do) requires patience and constant practice, because there is no end and no goal, there is just the practice.

We need to constantly remind ourselves of this fact.

That is why you will hear the dojo constantly resounding with “osu.”

Kneeling Bow

In the karate dojo, when we kneel in zazen, the usual posture is seiza.

When you bow in seiza, the fists are brought directly in front of the knees, about one fist away from each knee.

The body is actually raised up from the lower limbs, and you support yourself on the first two knuckles of each hand.

Raising oneself up requires effort, which symbolizes the respect you are showing to the other person.

Again, as in the standing bow, the bow originates in the bending forward from the waist, typically about 30 degrees, with the head also going down.

 As this is done, a loud “Osu!” to the person you are bowing to is shouted out.

The gaze is focused slightly ahead of your own body, at about a 45-degree angle.

The bow is complete when you are back sitting on your ankles and the upper body is erect.

Bowing does much to perfect manners and to make a person more civilized. This is one reason why it is practiced.

In karate, it also has a deeper symbolism.

We live in an age that worships symbols of power, wealth, and extravagance.

With these comes the building up of the individual ego. With that, says the Zen master, comes suffering and delusion.

We can be short and rude to a stranger, or we can get the best of someone through a small deception. This is “OK.” After all, “I’m OK., you’re OK.”

This is not the philosophy of karate. When we bow, we are pulling on the bridle of our own egos.

We are at the dojo to study ourselves, but, as Dogen saw in his enlightenment:

“To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas. To be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas is to free one’s body and mind and those of others.”


The self to which we have all sworn allegiance is composed of a pastiche of wishes, images, impressions, and models foisted on us by others.

When we bow, we forget this small self. When we bow, we strike a blow at the ego, which separates us from others and from our real “self.”

A dojo is a place where people come to train, study, grow, and change.

Much of our ordinary behavior in business, for example, is aimed at defending the status quo, our own rank and position.

In the dojo, we are looking to shed old skin for new in a constant process of physical, mental, and spiritual growth.

Karate Uniform and Equipment

At Seido Juku, all students wear plain, bright white uniforms, made of heavy cotton or canvas.

Students wear two patches, as shown in the picture, and nothing else is allowed on the gi.  No jewelry or personal paraphernalia is worn during class.

The belts are plain, cotton, interfaced with batting, and stitched.

No one wears a better or worse uniform than anyone else.

This simplicity and spareness come from Zen, for it is said that the monks who practiced the martial arts in China and Japan practiced only in their plain cotton underwear.

The modern gi is an update of this original uniform.

This spartan, simple understatement is referred to in Japanese as wabi.

This term arose from attempts to describe the whole Zen aesthetic sense: simple, yet highly formal, gardens; paintings that often had very few brush strokes and little pictorial detail; monks’ robes made out of the plainest dyed materials.

Western culture, on the other hand, admires terms like “glitter,” “glitz,” and “flash.”

These are not bad and they are not good. They merely get in the way, and so the Zen aesthetic cut them all away, to reveal something of the inner essence of an object.

When one sees a student for the first time, it is not possible to judge the station in life, profession, or ability by the uniform.

The only means to evaluate a person as a karate student is to watch his/her technique. Is not this the point of the practice?

What is secondary is removed. Such is the way of Zen.

After a while, a student’s gi and belt become rather worn-looking.

The seams are worn by abrasion and constant washing. Parts of the gi may be discolored by constant sweat from vigorous workouts.

The belt may be quite ragged from being tied and untied, and from being tugged on.

The gi, which looked perfect when it was taken out of its plastic bag, soon looks imperfect.

Of course, every student is expected to keep his/her uniform scrupulously clean.

If a tear develops, it is perfectly all right to patch it with the same material.

One’s belt, however, is never washed.

Every class you take, every drop of sweat, every little tear or abrasion is part of what goes into each student’s unique experience of the art.

It is something to be remembered, but not clung to.

Therefore, no experience is washed away. The belt must tell its own story, as does the uniform.

The uniform must be perfectly clean and sanitary at all times, but it also will show its wear and imperfections, which are unique to the student.

This is called sabi, another aesthetic value from Zen.

An example of Sabi is the tea ceremony.

The host serves the guest’s tea in a pottery teacup that he chooses and keeps specially for that purpose.

These cups are beautiful works of the potter’s hand. Each one is unique, which means, perforce, that each one is imperfect.

Usually, one dimension may not be perfectly round, the height might not be the same all around, or the glaze might have been applied unevenly.

When the guest has sipped the tea, he or she holds the cup up and examines it.

It is part of the custom that the guest express admiration for the cup, commenting on some unusual characteristics and noting its uniqueness.

The host is commended on his/her taste and refinement in choosing the cup. This is the origin of sabi.

Your gi is unique and personal. It is made into a beautiful object only through its use in the process of training and self-improvement.

This is something the student, in turn, respects by taking care of his uniform and keeping it neat and clean.

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