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Etiquette and the Preservation of Well-being

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by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #113 (1998)

Last month I attended a Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu seminar conducted by Katsuyuki Kondo Sensei in Baltimore, Maryland. In the course of his instruction, Kondo Sensei made a statement that struck me as especially profound. He said, “the purpose of etiquette (reigi saho) is self-defense.” I have in recent years instinctively grasped the importance of etiquette, but I don’t recall ever having thought through the implications of the use or failure to observe the rules of etiquette.

Let’s consider for a moment some definitions. First, etiquette: “the forms required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life: observance of the proprieties of rank and occasion.” Also, the related term, manners: “habitual conduct or deportment in social intercourse evaluated according to some conventional standard of politeness or civility.” Finally, custom: “a long-established, continued, peaceable, reasonable, certain and constant practice considered as unwritten law and resting for authority on long consent.” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary) In my reading of these terms, the key concept is “long-observed behavior proper to a specific context whose effect is to ensure social order.”

How about some concrete examples? One instance of proper etiquette in a martial arts context would be the placing of one’s sword on the right side as a symbol of peaceful intent. The sword is carried and drawn from the left side. Positioning it on the right side made it difficult to access quickly, thus rendering the weapon ineffective. A samurai seated before a superior who failed to move his sword to his right side scabbard facing outward could be immediately executed for his breach of etiquette. A similar example would be that of the military salute. I remember reading somewhere or other that the original meaning of the right-handed salute was to show that one’s weapon hand was empty and therefore posed no threat. A soldier who fails to observe such a simple gesture of respect faces disciplining according to the code of military justice.

What about etiquette inside the dojo? Many teachers I have seen over the years attach great importance to this subject. In dojos which observe strict etiquette, the teacher and students bow to each other to begin and end each class. Students also bow to each other when pairing off to train and after training together. I interpret the act of bowing in the dojo not only as a custom of respect, but also as an implied promise on the part of both sides to practice within safe bounds. Thus, in the dojo as well, etiquette serves to create a training environment where inherently dangerous techniques can be practiced with a predictible outcome.

Then there is the question of etiquette in the workplace. I speak here primarily of contemporary Western culture as the rules of behavior and accepted limits would be different in Japan and other male-dominated Asian cultures. In this age of political correctness, a male who fails to behave within the bounds of propriety and speaks or acts offensively toward a female may be hit with charges of sexual harassment. If the matter is brought before the courts by the offended party, the male perpetrator, if convicted, is subject to fines and/or imprisonment.

The subject of etiquette in the home is one near and dear to my heart as I am the father of two young children and in the thick of the fray, as it were. It will seem to some futile to attempt to impose good manners on young children at too early an age due to their egocentric behavior and short retention powers. Yet I have found that even though my children forget to speak politely or utter the appropriate greeting they do indeed recognize such forms of etiquette as desirable behavior. I know this to be the case because they do sometimes remember to use polite language and will even lecture my wife and me on the importance of being courteous when the mood strikes them!

One aspect of family dynamics where the role of etiquette might not normally be recognized has to do with the interaction between husband and wife. I think the percentage of couples who make it a point to treat each other with respect and kindness surely constitutes a minority. Perhaps the idea is that since the husband-wife relationship is an intimate one, etiquette and formality are unnecessary, even artificial, and should therefore be dispensed with. Remember the old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt!” Yet I can’t conceive of a situation where the role of etiquette is more important since the husband-wife unit sets the standard within the home. And one’s home is one’s refuge and the quality of life there is vital to the fundamental well-being of any individual.

Despite this, I have found that in both the American and Japanese cultures the tendency is to relax the rules of etiquette almost entirely within the home. This is certainly reinforced by the fare shown on television and in movies where numerous questionable examples of “accepted behavior” are paraded before viewers. As most will agree, the level of these programs and movies is quite vulgar compared with that of thirty or forty years ago. The trend has been downhill especially since the 1960s and one wonders to what depths we can descend.

In looking at the role of etiquette in all of these various instances we see a common thread. The observance of certain practices and customs allows a person to interact smoothly within a given area of society. On the other hand, breaches of etiquette can produce sanctions against the individual which, in extreme cases, may result in the deprivation of life or liberty.

In this day and age, many eschew the practice of good manners believing such behavior to be unnecessary, empty, and downright old-fashioned. I think such people have not been taught the origin and function of the expected behavior and therefore cannot rationally relate it to any useful social purpose. We might instinctively grasp the necessity of observing certain societal rules of behavior, but are at a loss to explain the mechanism of how etiquette functions as the grease of the social engine.

I think that one way of understanding etiquette can be gleaned from a martial arts analogy. Take the concept of maai. Maai is the distance or combative interval between two opponents. Choosing and maintaining the correct maai is the key to a successful attack or defense. Failure to adopt a correct maai results in injury or death. Through the forms of etiquette the metaphorical maai of all concerned parties is defined and maintained during the course of their interaction. A safe distance is achieved thus leading to a predictible outcome: the preservation of social order. A lapse in the observance of the expected behavior produces a shift in this psychological spacing. One party finds his space violated and feels a need to take retaliatory measures. The threatened person may then bring to bear the powers of sanction of the group to punish the violator. Viewed in this way, etiquette is closely related to the notion of territoriality in a behavioral context.

Gradually with the passage of time, customs and manners change to reflect the shifting values of a society. With the decline in morality characteristic of our age, I think that we will eventually reach a point where new forms of behavior are routinely adopted which no longer serve the purpose of maintaining social order and the preservation of individual well-being. I refer to such trends as the breakdown of the family unit, religious values, and general standards of morality we find occurring all around us. Perhaps, this is one of the forces behind the nostalgia for an earlier age where the notions of right and wrong and proper etiquette seemed clearer and more simple.