Karate Etiquette: Everything You Need to Know

Karate Etiquette: Everything You Need to Know

Karate is one of the most popular – if not the most popular – martial art in the world. Because of the nature of Karate, practicing it is suitable for persons of any age. That includes both children and the elderly. It is an art not only meant for self-defense and physical shape but for peace of mind and mental strength as well. Karate Etiquette is, hence, very important. But, what is Karate Etiquette?

Karate Etiquette is a general term used for the collection of rules and customs when it comes to the behavior of a Karateka (a Karate practitioner). The rules refer to the behavior and respect towards your dojo, sensei, and other Karateka. 

The philosophy of Karate is very peaceful and requires a lot of discipline. Many experts say that Karate is not just a sport or martial art, but a way of life as well. It teaches respect, focus, discipline, and peace of mind. All of the things you learn in a dojo can be translated into everyday life, which is why it’s so important for a Karateka to learn and adhere to the Karate Etiquette.

Top Hollywood Stars like Van Damme are karate masters, which is what has helped promote the sport in the US.

What do you say when bowing in Karate?

There are many phrases used frequently when practicing Karate. However, one word probably has the most significance and the most diverse use of all. That word is Osu (pronounced Oss). Osu is used as a sign of respect in various situations.

The meaning of the word has little to do with the purpose of it when used. It is a combination of two words: Oshi, which translates to push, and Shinobu, which roughly means endure or prevail. So, the meaning of the phrase itself would be something like pushing through. It means determination, focus, and patience.

However, when using it in a dojo, that literal meaning is reduced to mostly a symbolic level. The word is used as a sign of respect, or as a greeting when interacting with other Karateka. 

When you are entering or leaving the dojo, you should bow and say Osu. That way, you acknowledge your presence and respectfully greet other practitioners, your Sensei (teacher), and the dojo itself. The word can also be used when performing Kata. The thing you hear Karateka yell while performing – they yell Osu, to signify effort and “enduring”.

You also say Osu while bowing when interacting with another student. This could be viewed as a replacement for hello that you would normally say outside a dojo. To add to it, Osu is also an expression used as a response when your Sensei speaks to you or gives you instructions.

There are other words used when bowing but in other situations. Onegaishimasu is an expression used to show respect to your Sensei or senior instructor (Senpai) on two different occasions.

First, you can say Onegaishimasu during the opening sequence in a Karate practice. Most dojos use the same routine to start a practice, which we will go through a bit later on. During the sequence, however, there comes a moment where you bow to the instructor to show your respect for him.

Here, you can say Onegaishimasu, which means something like “Please, teach me”. The same phrase is used when seeking help from your Sensei. It is considered a respectful and honorable way to say please when asking for directions from the instructor.

Finally, there is one more thing that you can hear Karateka say when bowing in a dojo. The expression “Arigatou gozaimashita” or “Arigatou gozaimasu” is used on various occasions not only in a Karate dojo but in the Japanese culture in general. You can never say thank you too much to somebody who is helping you or is going to help you.

Therefore, it is never a bad idea to say Arigatou gozaimasu to your Sensei, Senpai, or senior practitioners with a higher rank than yours. Usually, you would say this expression directly to the Sensei during the closing sequence, or at the end of the practice before leaving the dojo.

During the final bow to the instructor, you can say the phrase to thank him for helping you learn during the practice, and for future help, you will get from him as well.

How do you greet in Karate?

Greetings in Karate vary depending on the rank of the person you are greeting. However, all of the greetings have the same base, and that is Rei or the Karate bow.

To do a Rei properly you need to stand up straight with your heels touching each other. Your feet should make a V shape, at an angle around 45 degrees. Your knees and elbows should be straight, with your arms relaxed along your left and right side of the body, respectfully. Your fist should be opened with palms on your legs, fingers facing down. You should be looking straight forward in bowing to the dojo or facing the person you are bowing to.

As you bow forward, your eyes should now gaze downward. Bend your waist about 45 degrees to the front, keeping your back straight and your arms still on your sides. Lift yourself back up, facing the person/dojo again. The entire Rei should last about a breath length (around 2-3 seconds).

When greeting a fellow student, you show bow and say Osu, which means hello in this situation. The same way should be done with the dojo itself. It has no religious significance, like prayers, for instance, have in a church or a synagogue. It is rather a form of showing respect to the institution of Karate and all the predecessors that made it possible for your Sensei to teach you the same art his Sensei taught him, and all the Sensei before.

One more important stance, or position, if you will, is called Seiza. Translated literally, it means proper sitting and is used not only in Karate but in the rest of the Japanese culture as well. It is a vital part of every Karate practice and is crucial to show respect or greet on various occasions. Just like Rei, Seiza has a specific way to be performed properly, as well.

When lowering yourself into Seiza, you should first put your left knee on the floor, then the right. Sit back onto your feet with your big toes overlapping each other. It is not important which one is on top. Your back mustn’t be hunched over, but straight, forming a 90-degree angle with the floor. Keep your shoulders relaxed and place your hands on your legs, as you would naturally. The fist should, again, be opened and fingers not separated while resting on your legs.

Both men and women should sit in this same position, except that men can have a bit of separation between their knees, for anatomic reasons. The opening sequence is a greeting itself. We’ll go through it to help you understand how to properly greet and perform the sequence completely.

The opening sequence in a Karate practice

After the initial line up at the beginning of practice, the instructor will say Seiza, which is a mark where all the practitioners sit down in Seiza, exactly the way we went through before. The next step is Mokusou, which is a short meditation period where you try to clear your mind and be at peace with the moment. This should improve focus, which will ultimately lead to better results in practice.

To perform Mokusou, stay in the Seiza position with your eyes gazing down. Try to breathe deeply, but naturally, and relax as much as you can. Focus solely on your breathing, and try not to think of anything else. It might sound super easy, but it takes a lot of time to be able to meditate and clear your mind completely.

After Mokusou, comes a sequence of greetings and shows of respect. When the instructor says Shomen ni rei, it means to bow to the front. You do that from the Seiza position too. To properly bow from Seiza, your left hand should be placed in front of your left knee, not too far, not too close. The best way to know the proper distance is simply to keep an eye out that your elbow doesn’t touch the floor.

The right hand should follow immediately after the left, with your palms on the floor and fingers held together, facing straight. You should bow straight down as you would in Rei, with your back straight the entire time. The bow lasts a little longer, to show the utmost respect. Your forehead comes very close to the floor, but should not touch it. Slowly get back up and pull your hands back onto your legs/knees.

You will perform the same bow a couple of times. Sensei ni rei marks the bow to your Sensei, while the Otagai ni rei is a bow to all of your fellow students. You don’t bow to each of them individually. One bow symbolizes you bowing to everyone. Seiza is used in other situations as well, especially if you are coming late.

Greeting when coming to practice late

There is a specific etiquette you should adhere to if you are arriving late to practice. In a dojo, being late is not recommended, because it is considered a sign of disrespect and a lack of discipline – something that doesn’t go hand-in-hand with Karate.

If you do, however, end up being late to practice, come anyway, especially if you haven’t contacted your instructor saying you will be late. It is the ultimate disrespect to skip practice without notifying your Sensei because you show a lack of respect for his time and effort to pass on his knowledge to you.

When you arrive, enter the dojo quietly and sit in Seiza near the entrance. Do not disturb the class in any way and stay quiet. Wait for the instructor to acknowledge you and allow you to join the class. Bow down from Seiza before standing up and joining the class.

If you arrive while the class is in Mokusou, do not make a sound and wait for the sequence to end. Then, take the steps we mentioned above, and try not to be late again.

What are Karate students called?

Through the article, you probably picked up on the name we use when referring to Karate students – Karateka. That is the general term for all Karate practitioners, but there are more terms you should know. The distinction in the title is usually meant to specify rank.

For instance, a Sensei is a master that has reached the black belt – the final belt in Karate. However, when you become a black belt, that doesn’t mean you are done with training because there are several levels of the black belt, known as Dan. That is why many say that, when you reach the black belt in Karate, your journey is only the beginning.

A Senpai (pronounced Sempai) is the name given to a senior instructor. This is a rank issued by the Sensei to top students who have usually reached the black belt too, or are very close to reaching it. Senpai will usually lead the training alongside the Sensei and should be treated with the same amount of respect.

One more term for a Karateka that is frequently used is Kohai. It is used to determine the rank of the practitioners among themselves. The translation of the term would be something close to later, or after. That is why it’s used for a junior student who came to the dojo after another student. Kohai is a term used to signify a relation between two practitioners.

How do you show respect to the dojo and your Sensei?

As we mentioned before, showing respect is crucial in the philosophy of Karate. There is no room for ego or disrespect because those traits are considered a sign of mental weakness. To show respect for your Sensei and the dojo, you should remember to do everything we have mentioned so far.

Bowing in Rei when entering or leaving the dojo, bowing in Seiza, using phrases like Osu, Onegaishimasu, and Arigatou gozaimasu are all signs of respect. To the dojo, to your Sensei, to the higher-ranked Karateka, and the institution of Karate in general, with all its founders and masters that came before.

That doesn’t mean, however, there aren’t some other forms of showing respect to your dojo and Sensei you should keep in mind as well. For instance, you should never sit on the sidelines waiting while the dojo is being cleaned up before practice. This is almost always done by the students themselves. Not only does it show respect, but it builds character and discipline as well.

It usually involves some grooming or mopping of the floors or putting the tatami together, etc. So, if you are standing around while others are doing the cleaning, it shows a lack of respect for the dojo and other Karateka.

Avoid disrupting the class or talking to other students during practice. Karate teaches focus as one of the most important things, so your mind should be only on Karate and what the Sensei is saying. To add to that, if you practice weakly and are simply going through the motions, it is also considered a sign of disrespect for your instructor’s efforts. Train hard in every practice, or don’t train at all.

When speaking to the Sensei, or any higher-ranked Karateka, never talk back or question authority. If you do, you will most likely end up in the locker room. Come prepared when it comes to your equipment (your gi, belt, etc.), and never wear watches, jewelry, and other accessories in the dojo. Never chew gum there as well, especially because of the hygienic and choking hazard it presents during practice.

Sometimes, you will need to leave class early because of other obligations. However, don’t do it in the middle of practice without your Sensei knowing you need to leave. Notify either your Sensei or a senior instructor that you need to leave early as soon as you get the opportunity – either before the class starts or after the opening sequence.

One more important thing we haven’t mentioned is slouching. While in a dojo, never slouch, lean on walls, lie down on the floor, or do anything else that excessively shows how tired you are. It shows a lack of discipline and toughness, and you should never show weakness.

Finally, never interrupt when the instructor is speaking, even if you didn’t understand something that was instructed or said. There is always time to ask for help. Typically, the instructor will ask if there are any questions after giving instructions. If you have a question, raise your hand and wait to be acknowledged.

If the instructor didn’t ask if there are any questions, raise your arm anyways and wait to be acknowledged, or respectfully walk up to the instructor and ask for elaboration.

There is much more to learn about Karate etiquette that is taught on the fly. To add to it, almost every dojo has its etiquette and rules that the Karateka should adhere to, so it is very important to know the basics and listen carefully to the instructions and guidelines you are given from the first day of practice.

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has been training in the art of kickboxing for over seven years, holds a Taekwondo black belt, and has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. He's a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster.
Article by

Vladimir Vladisavljevic

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He has been training in kickboxing for over seven years and holds a Taekwondo black belt. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. Vladimir is a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster. He was known as The Bulgarian Cowboy in the Western world. In addition, he has a YouTube channel where he talks about his love of esports, one of the fastest-growing fields in the world. Our testing and reviewing method.
Scroll to Top