On Being Tested: To Whom Do You Bow?

My dojo has three students about to test for their Brown Belt (Sankyu). Given Shohei-Ryu (and Uechi-Ryu) have only three colors of belts prior to Black*, this is considered a Big Thing. It’s also the first time a student tests before a board of Dan ranks (ie Black Belts), which is a Good Thing, because that’d be the case when a student tests for Shodan (Black Belt, 1st degree) anyway. Might as well get the students used to the scrutiny.

This will be my first opportunity to attend a testing as a Dan rank (Nidan, or 2nd degree black belt to be precise)**.  Since the test is by invite, the student can take heart in the fact that Sensei thinks he’s ready to advance. Also, the people administering the tests are a receptive audience — they want the student to succeed.+

Even so, taking a formal test like this is a daunting task.

I want to contribute to this. In fact, I had been working on an essay to include in the next edition of our training manual, and it occurred to me that the subject of the essay would make a good question for any student testing for promotion, so I’m fielding it.

The question is this:

The bow is a sign of respect. In karate, a student will bow to three separate people at any given class. Who are they?

The first two should be obvious. One bows to the school’s Sensei, obviously, and through him (or her — there’s an Aikido dojo in Pittsburgh founded by a very skilled woman, after all) the school’s lineage. The second is to your partner. Respect and trust are essential when working with another student in any martial art. After all, you have to be able to trust the person in front of you to hit you but at the same time NOT hurt you.

But who’s that third person? I’ve hit all three of the Green Belts with this question as a prelude. None of them got it.

Consider this: many martial arts studios have lots of mirrors on the wall. When you’re trying to apply a correction or pay attention to a detail, being able to see what you’re doing without looking down at your feet or waist is rather helpful. Here’s something else to consider: every kata begins and ends with a bow. When a student is doing a kata on his own, with the mirrors as a guide, who is that student bowing to?

Self respect is essential for any karateka. Without it, how can you expect someone to respect their training partner, their Sensei, or even the traditions of that school? Without self respect, a student cannot gain and utilize empathy. How can a student appreciate karate as being more than just a fighting system, without understanding how it can both protect and harm people (and how that protection can be extended to the aggressor)?

Without a foundation in respect, any martial art can be a terrible thing to behold. With that foundation, a battle can be ended without throwing a single punch.


*The Kyu ranks in our system go from Jukyu (white belt, 5 ranks) to Gokyu (green belt, 2 ranks) to Sankyu (brown belt, 3 ranks)

**Okay I SWEAR I’m going to stop putting lengthy bits in parenthesis at some point.

+Many schools have belt testing fees. Ours doesn’t until you get to Dan ranked testing. Even then it’s not that bad.


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