When the renowned Shitō-ryū sensei Demura Fumio taught his kids class, he would ask them, “What do you learn first in karate?” He would get answers like “how to punch” and “how to stand.” Then he would tell them, “Here, the first thing you learn is good manners.”
It may seem paradoxical that the first lesson of a combative discipline would be manners, yet the primacy of manners is foundational to the karate-dō we practice. Funakoshi Gichin, widely credited with bringing karate from Okinawa to mainland Japan, wrote “Twenty Lessons of Karate,” and the very first was “Karate begins and end with courtesy.” In our dojo, at the end of every class, we recite the five precepts of Seibukan, our system, together, and we say “Reigi wo omonzuru koto,” which we translate as “Honour the principles of etiquette.”
In this culture, etiquette has an effete, even prissy, connotation: it evokes how to properly fold a napkin or which is the correct fork to use at a formal occasion. But for the Japanese and Okinawans—and anyone serious about traditional karate-dō—etiquette or reigi means much more. It’s about the relationships between people, between teacher and student, or practitioner and practitioner, or beginner and experienced karateka; it means treating others with respect, consideration, compassion, and dignity. The dojo as not just a training hall, but more importantly a community of people who strive, sweat, and laugh together, where anyone who has a sincere desire to train deserves the very best we can offer.
So for us, reigi is an obligation. I regularly remind my students that when we have someone come to their first class, they are expected to immediately greet and welcome that person. We are obliged to remember that it takes courage to try something new and especially to be a stranger walking into a group who already know each other well. No one who visits our dojo is allowed to stand awkwardly by themselves, ignored or worse. I know karate clubs that pride themselves on their insularity and toughness, so that newcomers are treated rudely and sometimes even physically abused by the instructor or seniors. This is the opposite of reigi; this is a deep violation of the Way of karate.
So what does this have to do with politics?
A couple of my seniors have had reason to remind students that politics must be kept out of the dojo. And this is true: karate doesn’t care about whether you vote NDP or UCP, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, whether you’re on the left or right of the political spectrum. Again this is reigi: regardless of political allegiance, there is a place for anyone who will train hard. One of the wonderful gifts that I have personally received from karate is making good friends with people whose politics are very different from my own. That difference doesn’t matter to us; I know that I can count on those good karateka to have my back if and when I need it. And I hope they think the same of me.
We come to the dojo to train, so there is no room for political arguments that would only cause acrimony and division (and almost surely, no resolution). That’s why my seniors knew they needed to speak up.
However, in a paradox characteristic of Eastern thought and mores, while reigi is why politics are banned from the dojo, it is also why politics must pervade it. The head of Seibukan, Shimabukuro Hanshi, says “Karate ni wa jinshu mo kokkyō mo nai”: “Karate has neither race nor borders.” This is a deeply political statement, especially in these troubled times. Politics is about more than which party you vote for or whether you think socialism or capitalism is better; politics is also about power and citizens, about equal and unequal relationships between people in a nation, province, or municipality—or a dojo. If race does not matter in karate, then no one can be held as superior or inferior because they are white, black, yellow, brown, or any other color. Reigi means that everyone with a good soul and spirit can train. Anyone who believes that, say, African-Americans or Jews or Hispanics or any other visible minority is suspect, or that anyone who is not Okinawan or Japanese can’t truly understand karate, goes directly against what Shimabukuro Hanshi, the highest authority in Seibukan, has avowed.
The dojo must be political because its politics are the politics of inclusion. In our dojo, this means being inclusive not only of race, but also of religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, age, and ability/disability. The politics of the dojo demand that the measure of a person is their spirit, effort, and how they treat every other person there. Respect is owed the brown person and the white; the Muslim and the Christian; the gay and the straight and the bi; the male and the female and the trans and the non-binary. Reigi demands nothing less. I said above that reigi—the good manners that are the first lesson of karate—requires that we welcome the stranger, and that will always be a deeply political act.