Feet together, eyes down, use both hands to shake hands with your training partner. Say “Onegaishimasu.”  This ritual begins every partner drill in our dojo.  Why?  Well, to avoid nuclear Armageddon of course.  …  Perhaps I should back up one step.

My wife, son, and I started a tradition a year or so ago where we take at least one karate-related photo when we travel places as a family.  This year marks a decade since martial arts first invaded our household.  I must admit that a flood of thoughts and emotions overcame me as I edited this picture from a recent trip to northern Maine.

In the northeastern corner of what was once Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine, a couple dozen concrete bunkers built into the barren countryside still remain.  The area at Loring served as the first operational US facility constructed specifically for the storage, assembly, and testing of atomic weapons  (About Loring).  Standing at the back end of one of the storage bunkers, my wife took the photograph above –  my son and I executing a standard bow and handshake as we stood in the doorway to the outside world.

The remarkable duality depicted in this photo struck me this morning.  To one side of our position lived the cold, dark, brooding emptiness of a bunker once home to the capacity to wipe humankind from the face of the earth.  Yet, to the other side lay the brightness, beauty, and potential of a world of infinite possibilities.  And there we stood, my son and I, bowing along the delicate nexus of dark and light … despair and hope … life and death.  We were not perched precariously on some razor thin cliff, but rather existed as a harmonious and necessary link, or perhaps barrier, between the two sides.  My son and I stood there as two individuals – each with our own unique strengths, weaknesses, and life experiences – exhibiting two of the most recognizable symbols of mutual respect  – the bow and handshake.

And that is the lesson of “Onegaishimasu.”  In our dojo, karateka shake hands with both hands  simultaneously to show we hide no weapon from, or malice toward, the opposing party.  We offer trust by voluntarily constraining our most potent defensive options – our hands – through the two handed handshake.  We bow with eyes down in a non-confrontational manner – a gesture of commitment to the belief that the opposing party’s motives and actions are honorable and will not harm us.  Onegaishimasu roughly translates as “please,” or, as we translate it, “please teach me.”  This ritual exemplifies the mindset of putting aside who may be better than whom, acknowledging that both parties bring strengths and weaknesses that will be valuable learning tools for all involved, and committing to one another to work together towards mutual growth.  Developing respect for others often serves as the poster child for the positive character development thought to be associated with karate-do.

Take a moment to ponder what “respect” really means.  Can you define it?  What does possessing the character trait of respect look like?   Are the common definitions of respect seen in our culture the same as those meant within the martial arts world?  I would argue that the respect associated with karate-do, with Onegaishimasu, bears only marginal resemblance to how the term is often used in American culture.

Americans often view respect in terms of one of two mindsets.  The first mindset is one of awe. “I have such respect for the my Sensei, some actor, or some world class athlete.”  Appreciation for another’s mastery of some area should remain just that – appreciation for the beauty of the actions.  When one speaks of respect versus appreciation for another, however, one runs the risk of letting awe, or even envy, drive one’s feelings.  Perhaps a subtle difference, but vitally important to understand.  Envy or awe-driven respect necessarily causes the observer to place him or herself into a subordinate role relative to the observed.  Again, there is nothing wrong with appreciating one with skills superior to your own in certain areas – such appreciation can serve as a healthy goal towards which to strive.  Inherent feelings of self-worth allow one to avoid having appreciation morph into a less healthy envy or awe, or even into a potentially destructive jealousy.  We will return to this thought in a moment.

“You don’t have to like him, but you’d better %$&* well respect him.”  Such a statement exemplifies a second way respect is often “mis”used in American and other cultures.  When one tacks the implied “or else” onto the end of this statement, it becomes clear the speaker means fear, not respect.   Fear is a powerful tool that actually is quite functional in certain situations.  To an inmate, a person who lives in a crime-ridden area, or even a nation with enemies who would seek to do you harm, having others fear you may mean the difference between life and death.  This fear, however, has nothing to do with respect.  Your opponent would just as soon poke you in the eye as do what you want if he or she could get away with it.  Respect implies a mutually positive experience; whereas, fear represents posturing meant to achieve a superior positioning through avoidance or compliance.  Is the use of fear a necessary tool in the world?  Perhaps.  Fear is not the respect of which we speak in the way of karate, however.

So where does that leave us?  I would argue that respect is a construct of absolute neutrality.  When participants confuse fame, fortune, or being feared with being respected, the balanced nature of a neutral environment is upset.   If we spend all our time trying to discover and highlight an opponent’s weakness, we’ll either find it and embarass the person or force the opponent’s hand to demonstrate his or her own power.   Either way, one side loses.  In reality, both do.  A self-perpetuating destructive cycle results.

It is the nurturing of the absolute neutrality of the environment that IS respect.  Huh?  Karate-do seeks to build internal or intrinsic feelings of self-worth rather than allow external criteria or achievement to hold self-esteem prisoner.  When one comes to believe all life holds intrinsic value, especially one’s own, you offer the opportunity for respect to, and from, all those you encounter.  And it is when your partner approaches you in the same manner that the magic happens.  Both parties come to the table with their own unique awesomeness, yet neither feels the need to belittle the other by trying to use it to gain an advantage.  What each person gives and receives will be different from the other, but none less valuable.  Because being better or worse at something due to natural ability or practice does not define your worth as a human, you are left only to gain from coming to the party and participating.  The funny thing is, you’ll be effortlessly giving at the same time and probably not even know it.  It is this selfless, reciprocal give and take that is respect.

To those in my life – my family, my coworkers, and especially my fellow karateka at our dojo – are you not quite there yet in knowing and believing in your own unique awesomeness?  Take a chance and come and ask me what I see for strength within you.  Dare to come and stand with me, feet together, extend both hands, bow with your eyes down, and whisper “Onegaishimasu.”   You may be surprised what you learn.  I guarantee you that your presence in that moment and beyond is the most precious of many gifts that you give to me.