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Reishiki – the Etiquette of Judo

Reishiki – the Etiquette of Judo

It is the traditions and elegant customs of judo that lend it depth and that priceless sense of mutual respect that so many modern activities struggle to achieve. The mere effort of learning the etiquette and adhering to it as the very foundation stone of judo elevates a player above anything remotely resembling poor sportsmanship and it is fair to say that rudeness and general belligerence around dojos and competitive events is virtually unheard of. It is arguable that etiquette is the one thing that allows a strange paradox of judo to remain in balance – the paradox being that fierce competitive spirit can live in perfect harmony with great mutual respect, friendship and mutual benefit. Without a fixed and strict etiquette, judo would become a slave to the same forces that push other contact sports into and out of respectability, fashion and favour. Etiquette in judo is not negotiable, nor is it flexible or left as a matter of choice by individuals or clubs. It is the one element of judo that stands above all the others, including skill levels and technique, knowledge and competitive success. With a sincere observance of good etiquette, one can practice one`s heart out and compete with utter commitment and not yet loose any friends nor demean ones self in any way. Thus, quite clearly, good etiquette actually speeds one`s progress by constantly suppressing negative influences such as ill will between players, disfavour with coaches, reluctance to partner with you in randori or uchi komi, uninviting atmosphere in the dojo and such like. If you practice good etiquette, you will automatically find that coaches and senior players will be much more willing to give you time and patience and to help you work through your personal obstacles.


Westerners are sometimes mistakedly inclined to regard bowing as a gesture of subservience, but bowing in judo is much closer to a salute and all players bow to each other regardless of rank. In this sense it is much more a signal of mutual respect rather than subservience. A fuller understanding of this is worth pursuing if one is to appreciate the true significance and value of it and why it has survived the world over, even in countries where bowing is either non existent or reserved for royal circles.

When to bow

On entering the dojo, on stepping onto the mat, to ones partner before commencing practice and to one`s opponent before competition. At the beginning of a class there is a short procedure wherein the students kneel in a line facing the Sensei. Usually there is a photo of Dr. Kano at the head of the mat area, known as the Kamiza or seat of Joseki. The students turn and bow to the Kamiza as the head student announces the salute “Shoman ni Rai” then again towards their Sensei “Sensei ni Rai” who in turn responds to the students. At the end of the class the same procedure is performed in reverse order. Students bow when leaving the mat, for any reason.

In brief:- Ritsu Rei (standing bow) – seiza (kneeling-seated) – back should never be towards the Kamiza. Only the senior sensei of the Dojo can have his back to the Kamiza.
In proper reishiki all lesser ranks should always be on the left side of their seniors.

Choosing partners for practice, randori or uchi komi.

It is good etiquette for the lower belt to approach the higher belt and ask for the opportunity to partner with him/her. Hence, when the sensei announces say an uchi komi session and invites students to pair up, the lower belts should approach the higher belts.

When in any Dojo you are to remain seated in the correct Seiza (kneeling seated) unless the Sensei tells you to sit some other way. The proper way to sit is either the Seiza, or Anza (cross legged). At no time is anyone below the rank of Black Belt rank ever allowed to sit in the Kamiza area of the Dojo.

Sitting on the mats.

Do not sit with your legs stretched out in front of you, or to lie on the mat in any manner unless such is part of training (e.g. ground work). Sit in the kneeling position or the cross legged position. Do not sit with your back towards the seat of Joseki.

Randori and technique development with very high ranked judokas.

Once a judoka achieves the rank of sixth dan, the red and white belt may be worn, although such people are permitted to continue wearing black if they so wish. If you are fortunate enough to have occasional contact with such a person, do not subject him/her to a complete throw, an inescapable holddown or submission technique. Etiquette demands that this not be done, out of respect for the rank, not out of any question of “who is better”. At this level, “who is better” is no longer relevant. Consequently, when observing a champion freshly back from the olympics with medal in tow and moving around on the mat with a sixth dan sensei, the olympian never quite manages to throw the sixth dan, nor does he ever manage to achieve a successful hold down, even if the sixth dan is of advanced years and much diminished speed and robustness. Strange, given that his ability to do so could hardly be questioned, but that is the case, and it is good etiquette that makes it so. If in fact the sixth dan actively wants to engage in unconditional randori or shiai, then he or she shall don a black obi (belt) to signal to others that the normal convention can safely be ignored. In the opinion of some, another form of this also applies to older black belts of the lower dan grades. It is entirely possible that a young ambitious blue or brown belt is significantly more competitively skilled and agile or “match ready” than a middle aged black belt instructor who hasn`t competed seriously for many years, or who may, through aging have a touch of arthritus or other complaint that catches up with all of us eventually. Allow good etiquette to override your pressing need to ippon your teacher – keep in mind that by the time many senseis reach 1st or 2nd dan, achieve coaching accreditation and commit considerable resources to running classes and keeping a club healthy, many years and much water has passed under the bridge and their personal competitive judo skills often have to take a back seat to these other factors which nevertheless constitute “service to judo”. Without this commitment, often at their own expense, there will be no judo for you or anyone else, so let your sense of etiquette pay homage to this. In short, if your first instinct is to always treat all judokas of any rank with utmost respect, you will never go too far wrong.

Etiquette towards lower ranked players.

Nothing gives a student judoka a faster boost up the ranks than considerate older players. New players have significant obstacles and anxieties to overcome, and this is best combated by instilling in them complete trust in your desire to look after them. Once they are convinced that your first priority is to make sure they come to no harm they will launch into terrifying new techniques without fear and learn quickly. Resist all temptation to prove your superiority over the lower belt and by so doing you actually prove just that, by being a good role model.


Hygiene is both common sense and good etiquette. Quite apart from the health implications, it constitutes due consideration for your partners and opponents. Common sense once again, is your best guide, built on these basics:- Try to be in a showered and clean state on arrival, short fingernails and toe nails, any cuts or scratches taped over, clean judogi. Remove all jewellery, tape over non removable piercings. Refrain from attending the dojo when you are recovering from a cold, the flu or any potentially contagious condition. Always use footwear whenever you are off the mat to avoid dragging dust and dirt onto the mat. If you bleed from a scratch when on the mat you must stop immediately, notify your sensei and leave the mat. You may return to the mat at the sensie`s descretion after all blood has been cleaned in a sterile manner and the wound securely dressed. Grit on the mat, apart from being uncomfortable and unclean, can cause unnecessary scratch injuries and abrasions on players, another good reason to wear footwear whenever you step off the mat.

Conversation on the mat.

Further to the basics of etiquette mentioned elsewhere there are other aspects of etiquette associated with competition, refereeing and visiting other clubs. Much of the etiquette associated with judo is in fact plain and simple good manners and common sense. Any student in the habit of keeping their ego in check and exercising utmost politeness will rarely go too far wrong in any judo club. Speaking without invitation or interrupting the Sensei`s efforts to keep his instruction flowing, logical and evenly distributed amongst his students is probably one of the most common examples of poor etiquette. Many Senseis, if not most, are in fact volunteers for local youth clubs, Police and citizens clubs and such like in the same fashion as many coaches of other sports clubs are. Students honour this contribution to the community by helping to make the entire experience as easy, enjoyable and fullfilling as is possible through the spirit and practice of good etiquette. Swearing on the mat is strictly forbidden. Stick to this no matter what environment surrounds the dojo or what the habit and culture of individual players might be outside the dojo. Do your sensei the honour of addressing him or her as “sensei” on the mat. You may well be firm friends, work mates or even a relative of your sensei off the mat, but such easy familiarity taken onto the the mat only encourages others (especially juniors) to forget the formality of showing a little respect and in time the fabric of judo etiquette and its benefits will be corroded.

Etiquette and its effect on a clubs morale.

Good etiquette extends to the rigours of practical judo. In the rough and tumble of randori, practice or competition your obligation to develop skills extends to the proper care of your fellow players. Good “Kake” (the final components of a throw) is necessary for a throw to be judged skillful AND as an etiquette obligation to your partner – necessary so that he or she is given proper opportunity to exercise THEIR part of the throw properly – the breakfall (Ukemi). These elements of judo etiquette take some time to develop because they require considerable skill as well as good intent. However strict adherence to them allows the members of such a club to practice extensively at “full bore” so to speak with negligible risk of injury and consequently an uninterrupted progression to the highest levels. If you want your club to thrive and members to keep coming back, practice good etiquette, its one of the magical elements that sets judo apart.

Etiquette and its effect on competition and technique.

It is no accident that those few rare clubs who do not insist on good etiquette also fail to produce very successful competitors. But how does the application of etiquette speed one`s progress to the highest levels? What is its place in the philosophy of judo? Why can`t we take a short cut, skip this bit, and just learn the skills? The answer lies in the aspirations of judo`s founder Dr Jigoro Kano. We should recall here that Dr. Kano was an Oxford scholar, president of Tokyo University of Education, and a noted world lecturer. He was already a master of two schools of jujitsu when he began his quest for something above and beyond a martial art or military skill. Up until that point, the practice of martial arts was just that; practice. It is not possible to practice a martial art without injury unless at least one of two measures are taken:-

  1. One practices it as much less than full speed or full force or (for very dangerous practices) no force at all.
  2. One clads oneself in so much armour or protective gear that there is no resemblance to the normal circumstance at all.

The solution was threefold . . .

  1. Remove all inherently dangerous actions – inherently dangerous in that even when executed by a skilled practitioner there is still significant risk. An example would be wrist locks – where even a tiny error of judgement can mean severe damage to a complex and intricate part of the skeleton.
  2. Device a complete system of defensive skills which assume more priority and importance than the attacks themselves. One must first learn to be thrown before learning how to throw. Since judo is defensive, there is no presumption that an “attack” shall decisively end in your favour.
  3. Make the attacker responsible for his or her opponents well being as an integral part of the activity, in other words, judge a player on his or her ability to take proper care of their opponent.

In the manner of most examples of true brilliance, this philosophy is disarmingly simple and best expressed in the two simple maxims that Dr Kano gifted to all students that followed from those earliest days . . .

Maximum efficiency

Mutual Benefit

The first defines judo as a skills based activity rather than a brute strength event. Natural speed, strength or stamina or developed athletic ability is not detrimental to judo by any means but nor is it the first requirement. Thus judo is available to virtually anyone of any age, size, gender or body type, given good general health and very importantly is able to be practiced for years, decades, indeed for most of one`s life if so desired.

The second maxim compels players to ensure that they are in fact enjoyable people to play the game with. The player who does not take this mutual benefit maxim seriously will find he is not a highly valued member of his club, will not attract a variety of other members to practice with, will not therefore learn to defend against a rich and varied mix of different styles skills and abilities and will not be able to practice FULL BORE for any length of time before someone gets injured – hardly the optimum path to success.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this new approach might in some way reduce the value of judo as a system of self defence. In fact quite the opposite effect resulted. “Full bore” extended practice in exactly the same circumstances as real competition or indeed in the real world of “street trouble” means the judo player is never presented with situation hitherto not experienced. Constant repetition of completely executed actions means the skills are not left in a “still untried” state. On the street, the same techniques applied every week to fellow judo players well practiced in breakfalling and other defensive skills will have a very different result. The hidden secondary self defence value of judo is a little more subtle but just as relevant in that the committed judo player is in fact much less likely to get into trouble in the first place. But we diverge a little here, for this is more the subject of another article on the nature and definition of Sport. The second maxim, (mutual benefit) amongst other things, discourages arrogance in a player, encourages quiet confidence and politeness and eliminates a perceived need to “prove oneself”. If one`s instinctive reaction to human relationships is one of mutual benefit or lack of selfishness there is precious little grounds left for conflict to develop. “maximum efficiency” in judo parlance also means “minimum response” – thus judo skills can be equated with “the minimum response” necessary to achieve an end. Violent over-reaction is also therefore an absolute anathema to the philosophy of judo.