Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Who should thank whom?

It is a custom in many aikido classes for the students to kneel after class and bow to the instructor and say, “domo arigato gozaimasu” (Japanese for 'thank you very much').
Certainly there is not enough gratitude and politeness in the world, but I think this particular custom is misplaced – particularly in American aikido classes populated by non-Japanese. I have had a lot of people (misguided or not) get offended by the religious appearance of the kneeling bow, and certainly few students and almost no observers know what we’re chanting to each other as we knock our foreheads on the mat.
Not only is there a cultural and linguistic disconnect in this custom, but it creates a hierarchy that fundamentally misrepresents the power structure of the class. This custom reinforces the students’ dependence on the instructor’s beneficence to glean a little knowledge, when it is actually the instructor who is dependant upon the students for the continued existence of the dojo and the opportunity to further his own training. Let’s just see the instructor try to have a class with no students.
Instead of making students bow and scrape to me after class, we stand in a circle (facing each other like equals), bow (as a salute to each other as well as a nod to the Japanese heritage of aikido) and I (the instructor) say humbly to the students, “Thank y’all for playing with me.”
Now that is a custom I can recommend to other instructors out there!


  1. A reader on Aikido Journal posted comment I wanted to reply to, but I AJ apparently only lets subscribers comment on their blogs, so I'll answer it here...

    Nicholas Busan writes:
    I certainly think that as an instructor you learn more then the students do, (if you don’t, your missing it), but to say “Thank y’all for playing with me.”, I don’t understand this. First off, you are teaching / studying a Budo, part of this is the “martial” aspect. You don’t “play”, you study, you train, you practice …Budo, you don’t play it. Yes I know, people will say you play judo, kendo…different.

    Pat responds:
    I suppose I should have anticipated this response. I know in the past I have gotten my own tights in a wad when folks have suggested that aikido was "playing" or "a sport" or "a lot like dancing." But, check out Ueshiba's rules for practice from his book, Budo - particularly #3:
    Always train in a vibrant and joyful manner. That is play. Sure, what we do has its serious potential, and should be practiced carefully, but 'careful' and even 'serious' does not mean 'austere' or 'non-playful'.

    You have to play aikido as well as study and train aikido. As my great teacher told me a while back about teaching, "do it as long as it stays fun. When it stops being fun, stop doing it."

    Also, from a Southern U.S. linguistic point of view, it's easier to say, "thank y'all for playing with me" than to say, "Thank all of you for participating in a life-or-death serious martial arts training practice with me."


  2. Wouldn't a simple thank you suffice then?

    "Playing" does not have the same connotation as "playful", so those who don't know that you actually mean "participating in a life-or-death serious martial arts training practice" when you say "playing" will be left with as much a strange impression as if you said "doumo arigatou gozaimashita", but they may get the impression that your art is "sissified" instead of "foreign". The important thing here is that both teacher and students bow (on their knees or not) and say thank you. Though I think it shows much humility when both teacher and student kneel down to do it. Even more so from a western perspective, as we sometime think kneeling is submitting : aikido on the contrary teaches us that kneeling can be a powerful position at times.

    Also, the fee students pay should not be viewed as a salary but a maintenance fee for the dojo and the teacher because let's face it, without a teacher a dojo doesn't have much use even if it's free.


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