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The Courtesy of Eye Contact

This post is about courtesy in the context of eye contact.

When you are a student, it is important to show the proper courtesy to your Sensei (and seniors). It is important to try your best to be polite. However, the courtesy followed in Karate is a mixture of Okinawan, Japanese, and other observances.

One aspect of courtesy is eye contact. This one is difficult because here in the United States we all are equal and we should look everyone in the eye. Not looking in the eye might give the impression that you are uncomfortable or hiding something.

But in Karate, a student usually does not look the Sensei in the eye exactly. Of course, the student does look at the Sensei, but when bowing (something that it done often, even if in a minimized form), the student is careful to glance downward. It is very rude for a student to look at the Sensei in the eye while bowing.

Let me give you an example in the context of a conversation. If the Sensei tells the student, "You should try your best," the student should bow, glance downward, and say "Yes, yes," (or something similar). The student would not look the Sensei in the eye and say, "Okay."

If the student looks the Sensei in the eye during moments when courtesy dictates a downward glance, this will give the impression that the student either disrespects the Sensei, thinks that he (the student) is very good, or is very poorly trained. In my experience, the third reason is usually the source of the problem.

The student should show the same courtesy to his Sensei's peers as he would show to his Sensei. Thus, the rules about bowing and eye contact apply to these peers. Students should be careful to make sure that their eye contact with their Sensei's peers (and seniors) is polite.

This issue is especially important for students in the thirties and younger. That generation might not have had contact with elders and might follow the general rules of eye contact applicable in a general social context rather than a martial arts context. Again, I realize that this is a difficult subject. However, for a dedicated Karate student, or a student of any martial art for that matter, it is best to pay attention to such "minor" details. A student might train very hard for years, even decades. But improper eye contact, even for just a second or two, could unnecessarily give the wrong impression. A sincere student should show sincerity, and this requires the navigation of a sometimes complex and unwritten set of courtesy rules. Eye contact is just one example.

Bowing correctly, with a lowered glance, is easy to do... so easy that if a student does not do so, it can call into question his overall Karate training as well as that of his Sensei. In fact, when a student acts discourteously, other Sensei will often comment, "Look at his Sensei." This means that by seeing the student, you are also seeing his Sensei.

A final note -- one should always look downward when bowing. It is not polite to look in the other's eye and in fact, this could be perceived as a challenge. But in the context of interactions with a Sensei (or a Sensei's peer), bows are done in a minimized or subtle form many times during the course of conversation. Each time, the proper eye contact or downward glance is also important.

Students who violate the rules of courtesy are often described as having "no shame." This means that if they knew that what they were doing was wrong, they would feel shame for their breech. But since they do not know, they feel no shame. But since they are expected to understand such things, they should feel shame, but obviously do not.

Get it? Hard no?


Charles C. Goodin