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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
Do not call me Sensei and line up however you want

Clarification: In this post I am NOT suggesting people should do as I do. They should not. I am simply giving examples of how I have made our karate more culturally appropriate for the corner of the world in which my dojo is based. Respect remains. Discipline remains. All that has changed is how those things are expressed.I want to know how others have done that. I am NOT making an argument that karateka all over the world should drop titles and formal bows! Please read the full post so that all comments here and elsewhere accurately reflect what is written. Thank you.

Putting to one side the physical side of training (i.e. choice of techniques, forms of practise, etc.), what else has changed, for better or for worse, during your time in karate? Have you made any deliberate changes to the culture, dress code, terminology, ethos of the dojo, etc? What parts, if any, of “traditional dojo culture” have you moved away from? Have you added in anything from your own local culture?

It occurred this may make an interesting thread when I was teaching a new starter last week. I explained to them that it is “traditional” to line up by rank, but we don’t do that. We’ve not done it for many years and we pretty much take it as the norm now. We also don’t do the formal kneeling bows any more either. Or call instructors “Sensei” or similar. Here’s why:

Lining up by rank

When doing kihon, it is standard practise to line up by rank. I stopped that because it means lower grades are always training next to lower grades, and higher grades are always training next to higher grades. Mixing it up means that the lower and intermediate grades are more likely to have higher grades doing some of the same techniques next to them and they tend to get dragged along / inspired / infused with the timing and intensity of the higher grades. There’s a beneficial “learning by osmosis” that takes place when those of differing skill level are not separated from one another.

My belief – based on many years of experience doing it both ways – is that the group benefits from lining up in a mixed order. So we no longer line up by rank. Students understand that’s the way it is generally done; and they also understand why we deviate from that.

Formal kneeling bows

You spend five minutes in a Japanese dojo and it becomes clear that most attempts to replicate Japanese dojo etiquette in the west are inaccurate and un-nuanced imitations. The intent is to show respect for teacher, fellow students and art. I now feel that adding a layer of cultural confusion obfuscates that show of respect, and therefore runs counter to the intent. We therefore now stick to simple bows and western equivalents i.e. shakes of hands and taps of gloves.

Karate has moved through a quite a few differing cultures during its time, and each time it has been adapted to suit (think of all the changes Funakoshi and his contemporaries made to make karate acceptable to the Japanese mainland i.e. “empty hand” not “Chinese hand”, adopting a “do” ethos, wearing light weight judo suits as standard apparel, etc). I see no reason for that process not to continue now that karate is international.  And that is why I have abandoned the formal kneeling bows. Students still learn them for “tradition’s sake”, but we don’t normally do them in class.

Students calling their teacher “Sensei”

I’ve dropped that too. I’m “Iain” to my students and that’s it. This is definitely one of those issues that changes radically as you move around the globe; but in my part of Northern England asking to be referred to by a title comes across as arrogant / demanding subservience. My guess would be that this is a throwback to the British class system and a natural rebellion against it. People with titles (Lords, Lords of the Manor, Dukes, Barons, etc.) were people who generally thought themselves inherently superior (by birth alone) to the masses. Things have moved on of course, but I feel there remains a cultural propensity to view people who ask to be known by a title as both arrogant and demanding an acknowledgement of their inherent superiority to the common “plebs”.

Conversely, asking to called by your name comes across as warm and accepting. For example, if I was to refer to someone as “Mr Smith” and they said, “Please call me John” that would come across as being very friendly and open.

So “Iain” works better in my part of the world because it fosters an honest and open relationship. By virtue of skill and experience then I’m “first among equals”, but there is no formal split between teacher and student that my referring to them by name, but insisting they don’t call me by my name, would engender.

It’s not the same in other parts of the world of course. In the USA, for example, martial titles are used much more frequently, and they are used without any sign of the “arrogance” and “aloofness” that is sometimes assumed when such titles are used over here. Again, I would posit that’s because there is not the same cultural baggage in the USA.

In the USA, being addressed by a title is often part of the agreed culture of the martial group, and when everyone buys into that culture it fosters a sense of belonging within the group. It enhances cohesion; whereas where I live it can do the opposite by introducing awkwardness and feelings of subservience and inferiority / superiority. So, as a British “northerner” being called “Sensei” does not work for me and mine. “Iain” works much better.

I’m sure there are a few more, but that illustrates the general idea. To be clear, I don’t think there are any right / wrong calls on this kind of thing. Every given group will have their own culture and traditions; and if it is working for that group, then it’s working. I know of loads of great groups who line up by rank, instil formal Japanese etiquette and who utilise titles. They are not wrong for doing so and I would not seek to argue the culture of my dojo should be adopted by all others. Indeed, in many cases it would be entirely inappropriate for that to be the case. I do, however, think it could be interesting to explore the “cultural tweaks” we have all made. So what are they in your case?

All the best,


JWT's picture

An interesting and thought provoking post as always Iain.  

I still line my students up by rank. For me it serves a number of purposes. It helps me reframe my lesson plan by seeing the weighting of experience and potential pairings. It is also a reminder, particularly in the school club, of regardless of what year group or size a person is, who has put in the time to be recognised by me as more knowledgeable.  

As I do very little line work the order at the start and end of the class has very little impact on the class itself. If I am getting people to do different 'thin air' drills in response to numbers or learning a new form then I will mix the grades up so the more experienced are alongside the less experienced. In pairing up students I will cycle pairings a fair amount (especially to keep warring siblings apart) to give students the opportunity of working with people with different heights, builds and levels of joint flexibility.   

I have reintroduced the formal kneeing bow to my classes. There was a dual impetus for this. In the school class where a fair number of the boys are aged 11-12 the kneeling bow added a calming degree of formality to the rather hyperactive 'end of the school day' atmosphere. When I started teaching a regular Shotokan class for the first time in years as well as my other classes, I automatically included it as part of the ritual of both my original Karate and Aikido associations. That was less of a conscious decision. In the evening classes I don't always do it. If the numbers are low then I'm more likely to do a simple standing bow. I introduced the kneeling bow to my evening DART Karate classes in part because older school club members familiar with it had started to attend, in part because I often have Shotokan black belts or students training alongside. The secondary reason for having at least a passing familiarity with the kneeling bow was to ensure that in cross training or seminars students had an idea of what other groups might do.  

Like you I have difficulty with asking people to 'call me sensei'. I have had a lone total of one student express being uncomfortable with not knowing what to call me (because it hadn't occurred to me to specify), and I think I thus started the next Shotokan class with the phrase"In Shotokan it is customary to call the teaching instructor 'Sensei' if you have a question". I'm used to being called that at seminars but it's not anything I set great store by. I've been called a great number of names to my face (Sensei, Coach, Dr Titchen, Mr Titchen, Sir, John) and probably way more to my back over the years. All my evening class students call me 'John' and I'd say the juniors tend to split with the more confident regularly training ones calling me John and the ones less familiar with me calling me Sir.  


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Additional point: In Japan, where the titles originate, you would never call yourself by them i.e. sign a letter as “Sensei Smith” or introduce yourself as such (I’m told it’s found amusing when westerners do that). So even there, we have a cultural shift. It’s these things I want to explore.

All the best,


JWT's picture

PS Keep doing what works for you! :) 

Tony Smith
Tony Smith's picture

A very interesting article, Iain. I still use a lot of the traditional titles and ways however. I teach the youth at a boys and girls club and the age range is about 6 to 13. At one time I had as many as 43 students (that was chaotic to say the least!), but on average about 20. I always tell my students that there is more to karate than just kicking and punching, therefore, adopting some of the traditional structure helps to maintain order and focus.

I’ve adopted Gichin Funakoshi’s approach of beginning and ending with courtesy with a standard bow before and after class. And believe me if I forget to do this, which I have, the students will inform me of my mistake!

I do believe Anko Itosu had the right idea when he tamed, so to speak, the traditional karate syllabus down for its introduction to children, but that’s another subject all together.

As far as the use of Sensei, I’ve stuck with that as well; not out of arrogance, but rather as a simple term of respect. It’s funny, but both my Sensei and I address each other as Sensei… as opposed to our real names. I think I adopted that when I read, Lawrence A. Kane’s book, “Martial Arts Instruction.”  There was a passage in the book where he said in a traditional Goju Ryu class it was customary for both the student and the teacher to bow simultaneously and say, in Japanese, please teach me, as a way of giving mutual respect because we also know we will learn from each other.

Working with adults, however, I would use a much more unformal and relaxed etiquette, but I have not had the pleasure of interacting with like-minded adult martial artists (sadly enough) since your seminar in Grand Prairie, TX.  ;-)


Tony Smith  

ChrisGMA's picture

Hi all, really enjoyed reading this post as it is an issue we have grappled with as a group in the past. We are a practical Goju Ryu club out of Grove in Oxfordshire; we use titles Sensei / Sempai, we bow, wear Gi and use some Japanese terminology within our classes it currently works for us but if it didn't we wouldn't hesitate to change it. For what they are worth here are my thoughts on our situation.

1. Our Instructors are three generations of the same family so for me to call my father Sensei when referring to him or talking to him in a class feels more appropriate than calling him Ivan! It also helps for clarity as we have two Petes and two Chris' in the class! The children's class seem to like the formality and structured lessons as it makes them feel like they are practising REAL Karate!  

2. I also feel assigning a role such as Sempai helps clarify responsibility and provides a point of contact between the students and the instructor where the student might not feel they want to bother the instructor with an issue they might have. Now if senior grades are talking to eachother the titles are dropped and no one gets upset if they aren't addressed by a title by a junior student. It works exactly the same in the Army you would speak about your seniors by referring to them by their rank as a mark of earned respect when in front of the masses but to do it amongst your peers would open you to being ridiculed! The flexibility of this system is one we have adopted and seems to work well for our needs. Having taught senior members of the armed forces as a junior rank the use of the title Sensei has helped me define my role as the teacher. Once we remove the Gi, bow and leave the Dojo its nicknames or Sir / Sergeant depending on the audience. 

3. The wearing of a Gi for us is both practical and symbolic. The physical act of wearing a Gi is a very tactile preparation for the training they are about to undergo. The stripping away of the everyday clothes and leaving your daily baggage in the changing room helps focus the mind on the training in hand. We have dispensed with the kneeling bow at the beginning of the session (although I agree this can work very well as a cooling off period for the children's class before training), students who arrive late do kneel at the side of the Dojo before being invited to join the class. We have a mix of bowing to show mutual respect and the touching of gloves and shaking of hands when conducting live drills or scenario training. All seem to work very well in co-existence.

I am very interested to hear thoughts on how people are using new methods or hybrid methods in their training, thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings!


Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms's picture

Hi All,

A few thoughts off the top of my head on this subject: -

Calling the instructor Sensei

I like the kids to call my sensei as I think it adds structure and discipline to their classes. Also as Chris mentioned, they feel like they are practicing REAL karate. Some of the kids call me “Sir”. I have no problem with that either and I don’t force them to call me Sensei. If some of the kids called me Leigh, I don’t think I would mind as long as they acted respectful and polite in the class.

Wearing of the Gi The Gi is useful when it comes to the gripping and kumite drills on our syllabus.  It is good for the kids to wear as they again feel like it is REAL karate and it also helps create a team/group atmosphere. With the adults, I recommend them wearing one for the kumite and some of the application based drills. However, t-shirts/shorts are also commonplace. I just taught a seminar which was half gi/half no gi. 

Lining up in rank  I echo Iain’s sentiments when it comes to Kihon and “learning by osmosis” hence most Kihon work is done in a line that I have usually organized so that beginners and advanced students will benefit as much as possible. That being said, I do start and end the kids class with a rank-ordered line. This is mainly so that I can get a view of the class dynamic and I think it is important for the kids who have achieved higher grades to be acknowledged for their time, effort, hard work and dedication.  For the adults, I don't really mind what happens, usually a standing bow, high-fives and hand shakes. 

Formal Bowing I agree with John’s point about the formal bowing process giving the kids “calming degree of formality” at the end of a session. I also use the same as the start to get the kids in “the zone”. I see these rituals as a way of creating an environment that fosters good training. If put in place properly they can act as good triggers for a good training environment. 

For the adults, I tend to feel the informal approach they are given works better for them as they are able to put themselves in a state of learning better than the often distracted brains of children. 

Summary I try to look at the purpose of the reasons behind lining up in rank order, bowing and calling the instructor sensei. To me, they have been ways of creating a disciplined and respectful training environment. I would say that you don’t necessarily need to follow the “Japanese-Way” do reach these goals. Having the instructor called by their first name, line work in any order and shaking hands rather than bowing, can all lead to a disciplined and respectful training environment.

Personally, I can attest to training at Iain’s dojo and can honestly say that his students were more disciplined and respectful (as well as humble) than some traditional “Japanese-style” dojos that I have trained in. Thus proving that the “traditional way” is not always the most productive for meeting its goals. 

I can see an argument being made that you can potentially lose part of Karate's culture by removing the aforementioned practices. However, if your goal is practicality then I don't see how it would matter if part of the culture (especially if the part is already misunderstood and too complex) is lost.


Tau's picture

Tony Smith wrote:
 it was customary for both the student and the teacher to bow simultaneously and say, in Japanese, please teach me, as a way of giving mutual respect because we also know we will learn from each other.

"Onegaishimasu." Common in Aikido.

I think if we're completely 100% honest we all use and abandon the "traditions" that work or don't work for us. Or alternatively we practice historical reenactment, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Some things from my club:

We use the dogi because it promotes a sense of belonging. For some it's psychological. I used to see the putting on and folding of my hakama as being like mentally preparing for class and subsequently winding down. I'm getting lazy and haven't worn hakama in a while so that's how important to us that particular "tradition" is. The dogi is also practical of course.

We use coloured belts. I've long since argued that the coloured belt system is simultaneously one of the best and worst things about martial arts. I feel the benefits outweight the drawbacks. The Aikido that I used to do only had white and black belts... but students still graded and were expected to line up in grade order.

We do standard bow-in at the start and end to each training partner. We do keep the formal kneeling bow for gradings as I think it contributes to the occassion.

We do line in grade order with instructors in seniority order at the front. Note that instructor seniority is not necessarily grade order. Breaking from tradition I always put guest instructors regardless of grade on my right out of politeness. We do very little line work so grade order for that is irrelevent.

I've been guilty of putting my title (until recently "Renshi") on my business card. I concede it does look arrogant and have dropped it. I think something comparable in our culture is post-nominal entitlements. For example degree or society. For me, and as an example, this is BN (Hons.) RN (Adult.) There are times when this is appropriate and times when using it will make you look like a prick. Incidentally, does anyone (Gavin?) know if the Japanese use academic post-nominal entitlements and if so how they use them compared to say dan rank or title. I should add that I know that title system is abused and misunderstood. I don't want to have that debate. Some very good martial artists have seen fit to award me such titles. What I or we may think of them is a debate for another day. I digress.

In regards "Sensei...." well as course there are different perspectives. Taking a "martial" mindset you would never as a soldier address your major by their first name. In the dojo the instructors are Sensei. People come to the dojo for a variety of reasons but many find some of these traditions quaint and attractive. It's not even unique to martial arts, the club scouts have Akela, right? Outside the dojo I'm "oi, ugly" or whatever other terms you choose to throw my way. Unlike other Grandmasters that I could name I don't keep these traditions when I'm sharing a pint with my students. One interesting perspective, though, that was put to me: An instructor that I've come across has his junior students address him as "Sifu" even outside the gwoon. His perspective is that if they were to meet their school teacher they would still address them formally so why should martial arts which is all about respect be any different? I'm just keen that no-one put me on a pedestal. We're all flawed human beings, the same as everyone else. I hope my students appreciate this.

Don Messer
Don Messer's picture

The school i attand is in Arizona and we are pretty unique. All of us have a pretty informal realationship with each other and the sensei. We have three instructors under my sensei, i am one of them, and we are over at my senseis's house quite often. We have taken his kids on camping trips as well. We do line up by rank and do refer to my instructor as sensei, but that is as formal as we get. Our sensei picks on us and we pick on him quite often. They call my Twiggy due to me being 6'1 and 135 pounds and many of the kids i teach also call me Twiggy. We don't bow, we salute. We don't do many of the traditions that are common in other schools. Whenever we visist another school we give a cource on proper ediquette to our students so they don't offend people. We are very relaxed and it works.

RMS86's picture

I'd like to start my response by saying that I really do enjoy conversations like this one.

I've had numerous discussions about the value of traditional methods and have often found there are instructors who don't understand why some practices have become traditions. I find it off putting to find teachers who don't know why they teach certain things, but I grow all the more respect for people who can tell me why things are the way they are. I personally don't like the idea of following a tradition just for the sake of tradition. It causes too many students to lose confidence in their teachers methods.

Lining up by rank was something I found quite peculiar when I first trained in Take Kwon Do. I often wondered why the beginners were always in back when they made the most mistakes, thus needed to be corrected the most.

Thinking about what Iain said about beginners being next to other beginners, it reminded me of something else I see in most schools. Pretty much every dojo I've been to has been in a noticeably rectangular room where the broad sides are considerably longer than the shorter sides. I know that seems like a small detail, but when I think about which wall is the front/north wall, where the head instructor stands and the flags are hung, it makes a considerable difference. If the front wall is the narrower side of the rectangular room, there are more lines going rows than columns so it's harder to see what the senior students are doing.

That being said, wouldn't it be better for the beginner students to have the front/north wall be the broader side? So they can see the senior students and better imitate them? It would also be easier for the head instructor to see what the lower ranking students are doing, right?

Despite the lower ranking students not being able to be seen as well when lining up by rank, I'm still in favor of the idea for reasons some people might not approve of. I like the idea of specific senior students being corrected more which is much easier to do when they are closer to the head instructor. They have more experience being told they're doing thing incorrectly, so they should be better at handling the constructive criticism. I don't normally like to single specific students out when they make mistakes, but sometimes it just has to be done.

I think this is especially true when it comes to black belts. In the states, I find that too many people put black belts an pedestals, and too highly covet the rank. The way I see it, correcting the black belts in front of the lower ranking students gives the impression that the teacher expects more from them and shows the lower ranking students they will still have a long way to go when they reach black belt.

DonB's picture

I just like and will stand by the tradition, and as for rank I am an ex military man and will always have my students line up by rank. But I enjoyed you article.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

Thanks to all who have commented (here and on Facebook). The posts are all interesting and have valid points around the changes I have made at my own dojo. What I am finding with this thread, and the far greater number of comments on it on the web, is that people are generally discussing the merits of the changes I have made. Some are even of the mistaken view that I am arguing these changes should be universal, and are hence justifiably angry (from their incorrect perspective). I have reread the original post, and even added additional clarification, and I can't think how I could make my intent any clearer.

I am NOT arguing that the changes I have made should be adopted by all.

They were given as personal examples as I sought to start a conversation about what changes people have made in their own dojo. As I say, the vast majority of the comments (particularly on social media, as opposed to here) have been arguing for or against the merits of my particular changes. I have no intention of changing my changes because they work for us. I also have no desire for people to adopt my changes either (see original post).

So has anyone made any of their own changes? And if so, what are they?

All the best,


chrishanson68's picture

Hi All,  Nice to be back here! Been a while, life got in the way.  Well, I think it boils down to culture, where you live and your upbringing.  I am Indian and Chinese in cultural background.  Respect is a big thing, along with establishing a clear hierarchy.  So deep down, I expect it, and give it towards others.  If I'm teaching kids, I line them up and formality is important for foundation....training kids, you need to tame the wild beast in them lol. With adults, it's less formal, we bow before and after techniques etc., but it's ranked up there with a high five, hand shake, man hug, fist pump, or glove touch.  Again, all culturally specific gestures (North American), but the underlying overtone is Asian, for me, as that is the filter I see things through. At the end of the day, as most spoke about, it all depends on you, what works for you.  The underlying principal though is kindness and respect...doesn't matter if they call you Sensei or not, as long as everyone is nice towards each other, has an open mind, and is passionate about learning...you are good to go. Peace,

Chris Hanson.

diadicic's picture

Ok what do we do,  let see?

Well we only do standing bow before and after class.  

Don't bow after each kata.

Only call Sensei in class as to denote who the head of the school is.

Most day's we wear just the gi bottoms and a school tee shirt.  The Top and belt are worn durring tegumi and drilling (Keeps the sweat off you), Also if someone is promted we will have full garm on,   "Kempi"  January 7 holliday party.  

Line up is where ever you get, except for the head student.  He/She is at front right of the class facing the teacher.  

We have adding a tradition about 8 years ago.  The head student will bang a small gone before we begin our warm up. And at the end of class. Dosen't have anything to do with the original system just something we do.  It kind of brings us together. Sound's weird.  Kind of like a pavlov's dog effect. Our teacher just put one of for decoration one day and I started hitting it before we bowed in and out of class.  He liked the idea and now it's our way. 


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture


diadicic wrote:
The head student will bang a small gone before we begin our warm up. And at the end of class. Dosen't have anything to do with the original system just something we do.  It kind of brings us together ... Our teacher just put one of for decoration one day and I started hitting it before we bowed in and out of class.  He liked the idea and now it's our way.

I think that's pretty cool! I can see how that would work and add a certain atmosphere to training :-)

Speaking of new traditions ... this isn't something I do in my own dojo -  we just end the class with a simple standing bow -  but when I train under Peter Consterdine 9th dan, the training ends with everybody shaking the hands of everybody else who trained that day.  It's also customary for everybody to verbally thank everybody too; irrespective of whether they personally trained with that person. They are thanked simply for being there. So that will be another example of an "added tradition" that I have seen and quite like.  It also strikes me as a culturally appropriate "mirror" of the kneeling bows we find at the end of some classes i.e. It also shows respect and gratitude toward training partners and teachers, but in the western way.

Thanks for sharing that!

All the best,


Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms's picture

Speaking of a change from the normal karate practices...

In my adults classes we do a lot of work with music in the background, just to help maintain a motivated and welcoming atmosphere.For Kihon, Kata and some of the role-playing sparring/self-protection drills the music is usually muted, but for pad-work, sparring, skill-based drills we have music playing most of the time.  It's definitely not a unique concept within the wider martial arts community, I've been to MMA, BJJ, JKD, Kickboxing & Kali lessons where music is commonplace during certain kinds of practices. 

Katz's picture

I was taught in the US, and then opened my own club when moving back to France. Aside from translating most of the vocabulary, I also had to wonder how to translate the habits we had. One of the big ones, as Iain mentions, was "Sensei". Or rather "sir". In the US, we used to call whoever was teaching, as well as all black belts "Sir" or "Ma'am", and refer to them as "Mr" or "Ms" plus their last name. (Only in class, though. Outside of class was much more informal, although habits taken in class are hard to shake.)

That does not work in France. I think it's a cultural thing, much as Iain discusses. So I've gone with "Alex". For pretty much the same reason, I've done away with the "Yes, sir!" answering every question. It worked well in the US, but wouldn't here in France.

I've kept the traditional bow in ceremony (bow to the flags, meditate, bow to the grandmaster's portrait, then to the instructor, then recite the 7 tenets) and bow out. I wouldn't think of taking it out: I think it's a good way to set your mind to the class, as well as to relate to all WTSDA members that practice the same ceremony.

One "tradition" I've brought with me: After belt tests, all participants go have lunch together at a restaurant.

tubbydrawers's picture


When i trained in the UK under the UKGB, we did the kneeling bows and there was no talking in class, no humour where i trained anyway!!

I now train in Australia, where i usually train, we do a standing bow and all the black belts line up with the senior grade in the middle and going down the line by rank. We then face all one way and the highest brown belt says the following:

Shomen Ni Rei! Bow to the front of the training hall - then the sensei turns around to face the students and the brown belt says: Sensei Ni Rei! Bow to the Teacher - then the other black belts turn around and the brown belt says the following. Sempai Ni Rei! Bow to the Instructor (or senior student of Black Belt ranking) and then the brown belt says Otagai Ni Rei! Bow to each other

after each group has bowed they say oss.

Personally when the main teacher is away, i do my own thing!! as I do in my own class with my own students as below:

1. I expect my junior beginners to call me Sensei as they are just starting out and learning a martial art and to try and instil some discipline as such - white to 5th Kyu. we line up in rank as well, but usually we split off into groups each class to learn what is required at that belt level and then at the end they mix with the whole class doing Bunkai etc.

2. but when they come into the junior advance class, I am ok with them calling me Craig, as they have kind of proven they are here to learn and it does show they have respect for me as they always come down to help me out teaching with the lower grades etc. I do remind them that when they go to a grading with the other clubs, they will have to call others by their title as this is required! We have fun in all my classes when i teach and i always try and make some humour regarding Karate and my experiences over the years. Shows I am not a person to put on a pedestal. If I have to make fun of myself to get a point across then so be it.

3. I usually do not do the bows when I am teaching. I usually do one main bow to everyone and get straight into class. that goes for all classes when i am teaching. It has been mentioned by other Sensei's when they have seen this - they ask me why i do not do it, i just find it to time consuming and personally i do not like it.

4. I actually was the highest grade at a class the other night and they do not respect me there, even though i have been told I can teach - by the main instructor - he is away on holiday at the moment, I am not 'allowed' as such by the other lower grade black belts. It was mentioned to me, that the highest ranked brown belt should say the bows, but i do like mixing it up and asking other brown belts to say them. I think this kind of upset a few people!!!

With regards to other clubs in our association, I have never seen students just talk to their Sensei in the way my students talk to me. I am happy in that case that I feel I have bonded with my students with the way I treat them. I think I treat them like little adults than rather the way they get treated in school or outside of the dojo.

Regarding Iain's post - I think my students would be able to relate to what he has said and would see the same in my classes as well. I did mention Iain's post in that class the other night, there were some strange faces when I mentioned that I let my higher ranked students call me Craig.



Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Leigh Simms wrote:
In my adults classes we do a lot of work with music in the background …

That’s a good one! I do attend training where music is playing, but it’s not something I do myself. It’s simply a matter of musical taste i.e. it is hard to cater to everyone and what one finds motivational another may find distracting or even irritating.

At the session Peter Consterdine runs, there is music playing … but because “dance music” is not my thing it just gets zoned out.  I don’t think I’d notice if it was playing or not. I do, however, regularly have music on when I train personally. The only thing I turn it off for is kata as I don’t want the rhythm of the music impacting on the rhythm of the kata.

Katz wrote:
That does not work in France. I think it's a cultural thing, much as Iain discusses. So I've gone with "Alex". For pretty much the same reason, I've done away with the "Yes, sir!" answering every question. It worked well in the US, but wouldn't here in France.

I’m no sociologist, but I wonder if that’s the cultural echoes of the revolution in a singular way to how titles generally don’t work in the UK due to the formally rigid class structure?

My time in the USA, does leave me with the impression that the “formality” fits perfectly. It’s also much more common there in everyday parlance too i.e. you get called “sir” by shop assistants, officials, etc.

tubbydrawers wrote:
… but when they come into the junior advance class, I am ok with them calling me Craig, as they have kind of proven they are here to learn and it does show they have respect for me as they always come down to help me out teaching with the lower grades etc …

… I did mention Iain's post in that class the other night, there were some strange faces when I mentioned that I let my higher ranked students call me Craig.

I think you’ve marked something significant there; and it is something which has been missed in some of the discussion on social media that this tread has provoked. Some may see you being referred to by name as disrespectful; which it may be in their own “dojo culture”. However, in yours (and mine) the respect is not linked to the title. The mutual respect is there; and the lack of formal titles in no way diminishes that because that’s not the culture of the dojo. I have seen some remark along the lines of, “I disagree with the dropping of titles, lining up by rank, etc. because respect and discipline are important.” The point they are missing is you can have titles and linking up by rank, and still have no mutual respect or discipline i.e. they are hollow gestures. And you can do away with titles and linking up by rank, and still have mutual respect and discipline in abundance. People need to be careful of judging the actions of one “culture” by the values of another.

Thanks for all the feedback!

All the best,


JMCB's picture

I have recently opened my own club teaching applied Shotokan karate, as opposed to traditional 3K Shotokan karate. I have also made some concious changes to the traditional way that I was taught, including dropping the need to call me sensei. I am simply James to my students. I used to box and always found that the students had the utmost respect for the trainer without the need for any titles, it was first names for everyone and it was never an issue.

I have found from my own experience that people who demand respect through honorific titles are simply looking to set up a hierarchy of control through a series of traditions that are completely out of place outside the dojo. My last instructor insisted on everyone running up to him on entry to the dojo and bow and scrape to show their deference. I found the whole thing to be very odd and always wanted to have a more relaxed and practical attitude to training.

I am teaching practical, applicable karate meant for self defence/self protection and feel that respect is earned, not demanded, hence the intentional dropping of certain traditional practices. We don't line up by rank either, I agree that it helps the beginners to see proper technique being performed and also see the amont of effort/spirit that the higher grades put into their techniques.

I have also dropped the need to bow on entry and exit of the dojo, I always found this level of tradition to be slightly out of tune with the practical aspects of what I am trying to teach.

Interesting to note that my earlier association was very much focused on the 3K's and I always felt that the level of tradition was used to stop people thinking too much for themselves. Questioning why something was done in a certain way was actively discouraged, as was training under any other instructor or association.

I am running a relaxed and friendly club where people come to learn practical karate. This doesn't meant that the techniques are not good nor that disciplline is reduced, but it does mean that people can question why things are done in a certain way. We focus on effectiveness, not the minute corrections to technique that have no meaning from a practical perspective.

We don't bow on entry or exit of the dojo, i've dropped the Sensei honorific, beginners and advanced are mixed throughout the class, people can question and ask for techniques to be demonstrated again without the threat of barking orders and press ups! I'm running a practical karate club, not a quasi Japanese army boot camp!

I have adopted the coloured belt/Kyu grade system because it helps to differentiate the amount of knowledge and skills that students have acquired, but the important thing for me is the acquisition of skills/knowledge and not rank. I am encouraging students to learn and not to gain belts and we grade when students are ready, not on a set artificial timescale just to make people feel like they are progressing.

I have dropped the Kumite sets and don't do a lot of air striking. Once the technique is basically understood, we strike & kick pads/shields and do pad drills to develop power.

I am also not trying to encourage others to do what I do, some people find the traditions reassuring, and maybe for children it's helpful to keep control and instill discipline,  I just feel they have no place in terms of what I want to teach (most of my students are adults who want to learn practical skills).

All the best


Stuart Akers
Stuart Akers's picture

We line-up, high grades to my right , standing bow to me (or whoever is taking the class, I'll bow to anyone who's taking the class), then we bow to Phil's (Milner) picture, music on and off we go, I hate the sound of my voice.

Occasionally someone will complain about about what comes on the laptop, I will admit Pink Floyd's, 'Careful with that axe Eugine' is difficult to move with.

I'm Stuart here, in the dojo, in the pub, so why would I need a title?

Gi .....

Not to everyone's taste but they're very light, wick the sweat away, contain lycra and they're the best suits we've ever had. Made by Steve at Faze 101.

When we 1st got them everyone did the same thing, put the pants on and lifted their left leg and looked surprised, they feel great and work really well, the kids wear the same pants and a club T shirt.

I was discussing the kneeling bow for the kids with my No. 2 Mike and whether we should institute it I quite like the idea.

Jordan Giarratano
Jordan Giarratano's picture

I greatly appreciate this thread and seeing everyone's thoughtful responses. I was trained in an informal tang soo do school. We had belts and practiced kata, but our focus was on kickboxing-oriented striking and self-defense. We briefly meditated and bowed before and after class. We used titles. But that was it.  When I opened my dojo nearly five years ago I did not expect how many specific choices I would make regarding the tradition of martial arts. In many ways my school is more formal and traditional-oriented than my instructor's, but it's also wildly heretical in other ways. The approach I took was to pull back and ask, "Why is this a tradition? What purpose did it serve for the original founders? Does it still serve us today? What was the original intent?"

It was scary at first, making these changes (who the hell am I, some thirty-year old American with eight students in Seattle) but as I dove into the research, and as my school grew and I ran into different challenges with trying to manage multiple ages, sizes, temperaments, and skill levels, I realized that many of the traditions may have been in response to the old masters facing the same challenges that I am facing today as a teacher and school owner.

Foreign Language

I decided to cut out any foreign words that have a clear, direct translation into english. I say punch, kick, etc. As well as the opening bowing ceremonial stuff from Tang Soo Do, I cut all of that. It didn't feel natural, I couldn't spell it, and I don't speak Korean. One of my self-questions was: "Would I be embarrassed to say this if I had a native speaker in my class?" 

I kept any foreign words that carry poetic meaning or have no direct translation. I personally do not like to see sensei translated as teacher or dojo translated as school. So much about karate gets lost in translation already, better to use the word itself and try to teach its depth. Sensei has connotations of humility that I appreciate. Breaking down and explaining the word is something we do with new students. Same for dojo. I also keep kiai and a few other words. Saying "uke" sounds better than saying the "receiver," etc...

Any words or concepts that I'm inspired to keep for "flavor" I be sure to try to understand and teach in context and make it an actual part of our community practice (for instance sempai/kohai instead of senior/junior, etc). 

There are some great discussions to be had regarding cultural appropriation vs inspiration, but this is already going to be a long post, so I'll save it. In some regards blindly copying another culture is exploitive, in others being open to and learning from another culture brings us together and helps us to focus on what we have in common. I try really hard to use this as an opportunity to teach about history and culture.

Titles & Hierarchy

As stated, we use sensei, but no other titles. I see sensei as the role of being more knowledgable in a given field than my students. It's ever-changing. I have as much training as my instructor had when he opened his school, but now when I go to see him twenty years later, he's still teaching me new things. He will always be my sensei. I wouldn't feel comfortable having people call me master. I'm personally put off by excessive titles. 

My teen students and kids call me sensei. My teen classes are more open and engaged than the usual military style dojo thing, but at the same time, keeping me grounded with a title helps the kids to see me as a teacher and adult, not a buddy. 

Adults can choose what they call me, either Sensei or Jordan. Many adult students will call me sensei within the dojo and Jordan when we're outside of training. That I really appreciate because it helps them to separate my roles and respect my boundaries as a teacher and a person... I've had parents of teen students call me sensei and I appreciate that, because they're acknowledging and appreciating the relationship I have with their child. But I've also had random corporate clients email me about teaching self-defense workshops and address me as sensei because that is how they saw it on my website, which just makes me feel like I'm so full of crap, so it's still something I'm figuring out.

In America, I feel that titles are helpful because we stereotypically hold so few things in reverance and are so anti-social and consumer-oriented. Titles work well here because we, as a people, are so thirsty for anything that makes us feel less alienated. It also represents a practice to make it socially acceptable to ask for help. Americans have this myth of self-sufficiency and lone heroes that weigh us down. I think by using titles it's like saying "Oh you're an expert, I won't be embarrassed to admit I need help." This is a double-edged sword. I think it's really, really easy to create a culture of blind obedience in the US and to take advantage of people. 

I make it clear that the hierarchy within the dojo is the hierarchy within the dojo. It's a voluntary practice, not a social caste. Students are taught to ask for help from higher ranks and be offer help to lower ranks. I do my best to lead by example and show that black belts can make mistakes (so many mistakes). We actively work against becoming a blind culture of obedience while simultaneously giving people the freedom to choose to show their respect. The belts and titles are just tools to help people explore this. The concepts can be very abstract and complicated for many people, especially young adults and kids. 

The hierarchy is also valuable though because it's helped me to keep students safe by limiting what techniques or roles can be performed by certain students. With joint locks, throws, and full-contact fighting happening in the space, with a wide mix of students and personalities, this is one of my strategies for maintaining order.

We set up in a circle to begin and end class. I think the energy is better. Everyone can see each other. It reinforces the nature of our dojo as a community.


I've dropped the kyu/dan entirely. I did a lot of research on it and while I value it tremendously, it's not old enough to be beyond reproach to me. It was modified by a number of people. The colors are up in the air from style to style. So I didn't feel as blasphemous for changing how I approached it. 

Everyone starts as a white belt, they then earn five ranks: gold, green, blue, red, brown. Each rank is tied to a pinan kata in order. Brown belts spend a year training and mastering what they've already learned, plus naihanchi to test for black belt. To replace the extra ranks I use a system of five stripes earned on each belt through ongoing training and review. When someone has all five stripes, they are eligible to test for the next rank. It mixes the testing method of karate I appreciate with the earn-as-you-go mentality of BJJ. 

It's definitely not for everyone and I wouldn't presume to tell anyone else how to do it, but it works for the intent of what I'm teaching and I'm confident that my students have sufficient training to be comparable to the same rank in other styles.

Dojo as Sacred Space

It is important to me as a teacher that my students respect and value me, the space, and the legacy of karate. It personally bums me out when people don't take their training seriously or respect the dojo or their fellow students, or me. I value this as a core need I have as a teacher. If people can't get on board with this or if it's not for them, that's ok. I've asked people to leave and I'm certain people have chosen not to join. I know this has hurt me financially, but I also feel grounded, happy, and fulfilled. And the people who train in our space are truly a community.

One of our practices is to treat the dojo as a sacred space (simply put, a space apart from the mundane or stressful personal lives we have). I ask people not to bring outside gossip, technology, or worries into the dojo. We bow in and out on the floor as a way of reinforcing this idea. It is not mandatory. I feel like if you make everything mandatory people don't get a chance to ask questions and choose for themselves to make the practice their own. I love when someone asks "why do you bow before you leave" and I get to explain what having this dojo means to me and to the people who train here. Good things happen in our dojo, people grow and overcome challenges, and I like to honor the role of the space plays in that. 


I'm constantly grappling with and modifying curriculum. I teach elements of Muay Thai, kickboxing, self-defense, joint locks, grappling, all together in my belt program. It's only really been through training with Iain and doing tons of research that I've come to understand these arts have more in common than they do apart. And it's allowed me to make some progress on defining the limits of what I teach.

My teacher covers 10 kata up to black belt. I've limited it to 6 (maybe 7). I dropped the basic kee cho kata. I teach the pinan, and also use the term pinan as opposed to pyong ahn as we've dropped almost every other aspect of tang soo do as I've delved deeper into the histories. Reorganizing this into coherency is a very exciting process.

This year I'm also integrating my background as an artist and storyteller into what I teach. Drawing on myth both from martial arts and the work of Joseph Campbell and others to explore the gray area function of karate as a method of personal development. Still in the beginning stages, so not much to report on this front.

Once again, these are just my thoughts. I loved reading everyone's views on these ideas. It's so wonderful to have a forum for thoughtful discussion on these topics that always seemed taboo in traditional martial arts.

Stuart Akers
Stuart Akers's picture

Lovely, well constructed and thoughtful piece Jordan.

I'm sure you'll be a credit to your sensei, I love people who think about what/how they want to teach , it gives us old men renewed hope for the future. 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Brilliant post Jordan!

Jordan Giarratano wrote:
To replace the extra ranks I use a system of five stripes earned on each belt through ongoing training and review. When someone has all five stripes, they are eligible to test for the next rank. It mixes the testing method of karate I appreciate with the earn-as-you-go mentality of BJJ.

I’m somewhere where between the two. Each student has a sheet which lists the skills they need before they pass to the next rank. At the start of each class, the students put the sheets on a table in the corner of the room. If any of the senior black belts see the student demonstrate something to the required level, then the sign the sheet to say that element been achieved. When they have everything signed off, they get the next belt. So it’s continual assessment for them.

For senior students (4th kyu and above), once their sheet is signed up, they are eligible to test and they do an old style grading exam. That’s because I want to see they can pull it all together on a single day and deal with the stress of that.

We like this because, at a glance, all instructors can see where an individual needs work and the individual knows it too. It also means that the motivation that seeking advancement in rank can engender is present at every class because you can always get another technique / drill / type of sparring, etc signed off. So not “traditional”, but we like it and it gets results.

Jordan Giarratano wrote:
Dojo as Sacred Space …

I agree with all you wrote and feel a similar way, but even there I do / have done things little differently in order to make it culturally appropriate for members.

I had one pastor who have trained with me who felt very uncomfortable with the dojo being treated as “sacred space” because they felt it ran counter to their deeply held beliefs and worldview. “Bowing to the room” as they entered and left felt uncomfortable for them, because bowing was seen – from their religious view point – as an act of worship to the “spirit of the room”.

As you say, most would see it an action to mark the movement in to space were an important, and potentially dangerous activity, is taking place. That activity needs to be respected, and a bow causes refection on that fact. The intent was explained, and accepted, but the discomfort remained.

I do respect the religious sensibilities of others and I would not wish to make anyone feel uncomfortable or disbar them from practise. I asked if they would feel comfortable pausing for a second, without bowing, before entering. They said that would be fine and to me that achieves the exact same effect so that what we did.

I personally would not call the dojo “sacred” for the same reason (the word means different things to different people) and would probably opt for something like “a respected space” or “a separate space”. I view the dojo in the same way, but would label it differently due to cultural senilities.  

All the best,


Jordan Giarratano
Jordan Giarratano's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:

I’m somewhere where between the two. Each student has a sheet which lists the skills they need before they pass to the next rank. At the start of each class, the students put the sheets on a table in the corner of the room. If any of the senior black belts see the student demonstrate something to the required level, then the sign the sheet to say that element been achieved. When they have everything signed off, they get the next belt. So it’s continual assessment for them.

That's brilliant. I'm stealing that. 

Iain Abernethy wrote:

I personally would not call the dojo “sacred” for the same reason (the word means different things to different people) and would probably opt for something like “a respected space” or “a separate space”. I view the dojo in the same way, but would label it differently due to cultural senilities.  

I definitely agree it's a tricky thing and especially so with the dubious relationship the martial arts have always shared with any kind of spiritual function. Everyone brings their own perspective and connotations with them, so finding words that we universally agree on I think is always going to be challenging. I think in a city like Seattle, it's easier to get away with using the word "sacred" in this context, whereas in other spots that could very challenging and/or confusing. But also in the larger scope of karate and martial arts, we're always working, to some extent, against the stigma of the "martial arts cult" or BS mysticism, so it's important to be conscientious.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Jordan Giarratano wrote:
Everyone brings their own perspective and connotations with them, so finding words that we universally agree on I think is always going to be challenging.

Absolutely! We don’t even have a universally agreed upon definition of what “karate” is :-)

Jordan Giarratano wrote:
I think in a city like Seattle, it's easier to get away with using the word "sacred" in this context, whereas in other spots that could very challenging and/or confusing. But also in the larger scope of karate and martial arts, we're always working, to some extent, against the stigma of the "martial arts cult" or BS mysticism, so it's important to be conscientious.

Very true. Myths persist both within and outside the martial arts. I once had a long discussion with a friend of a friend of where I failed to convince them not all karateka were Buddhists (or at the very least unwitting adherents to the Buddhist worldview). Apparently the fact I know I’m not, and I know the vast majority of practitioners aren’t, was not enough to overcome the “facts” bestowed on him by episodes of “Kung Fu” :-)

We struggle on.

All the best,


M J Austwick
M J Austwick's picture

I too am going to steal the continual assessment idea, I love it! Admittedly you'd probably expect me to do things differently bearing in mind I am not teaching a traditional martial art as such, but rather one of my own (re)creation.  But the one thing I have brought with me from my days in karate is lining up in order of ability.  Note ability not rank.  I tell the class that they should line up with the best at one end of the line and the worst (least good?) at the other, but also that I will never tell them where in the line they should be standing.  They put themselves where they think they belong, and it rarley follows the rank system. I decided to do this as a way of finding out where people think they are in relation to each other.  It's quite telling that some very skilled martial artists consider themselves to be significantly less skilled than I would say, and one or two the opposite.