The Role of Tradition

We were lined up by rank. The person to your left was the same rank or lower. Alex, as the student furthest to the right, would call out in Japanese. We’d come to attention, kneel (always on the left knee first), meditate, bow to the black belts, and then return to standing (always with the right leg first). Mark explained that we should learn the ceremony because if we went to other schools it would be reasonable for them to expect we know it.

When I went to train with the Bujinkan group I learned that what I had learned was a sort of abbreviated form. When I went to study the Kendo Club for an anthropology class I noticed that the abbreviated form was the common core, and that different clubs  and Japanese martial arts had their own traditions based around that ceremony Mark had taught us. Even today in judo, a form of the ceremony is done. We skip the kneeling. We skip the meditation. We still line up by rank and bow to start and end each class though. Even in BJJ, an art which is decidedly less formal than any Japanese martial art I’ve done, the ceremony exists in its own form. Usually just at the end of class, sometimes at the beginning. Often it’s accompanied by a small handful of people belting out an “OSS” as they bow, unaware of what the cry even means or where it came from.


Imposter syndrome is a hot buzzword in software development. More and more people are coming out with articles and conference talks describing that the very best people still feel like they’re hiding that they don’t feel like they know what they’re doing. You probably felt it with your last belt promotion. The way people typically deal with it is by putting up a facade. To hide that they feel insecure about their position they act as they think someone in their position is supposed to act. Tradition is very powerful for that. When you have to lead a class, but you’re not really sure how you want to do it yet, traditions lend to you a format to use that you need not even think about and that no one will question. Line them up, bow them in, do a light warm-up, show a couple techniques, have them drill it, partner them up to roll, line them up again and call it a night. Without even knowing what the bows are there for or what their origin might be they bookend the class and give you a moment to see formal and respected, like you might actually have some fucking clue what you’re doing. Almost all traditions at least start out as facades. We follow along by very virtue of them being traditions, and hopefully at some point along the way we find out why they exist.

The other use I see for tradition is in maintaining culture. I’m not always sure if that’s a good or bad thing. Still, if you want a class to take things a bit more seriously you can have the formal bow in. If you want to have a more sport-oriented class you can establish a tradition of harder, competition style randori. How you teach your students is probably how they’ll teach their students. Getting everyone into the same type of practice establishes and maintains a culture.

If you’re a student looking for a school and they participate in some traditions you don’t like – ask to not participate in them or find a different school. If you’re running a school, participate in the traditions you want. If you’re unsure if a tradition is adding something, try to figure out what it was for – if you’re still not sure, you can usually tell by taking it away and seeing what’s missing.


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