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Martial Arts: Japanese Martial Arts

Goaisatsu – Greeting as a Gesture of Respect

By Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D

No matter how long I study, nor how many times I go to visit my teachers in Japan, there are persistent cultural differences that crop up and have to be dealt with "the hard way;" i.e., through experience (I could tell you the bathing protocol story sometime, but I'd rather not). 

Some years ago, one of my teachers came to New York for a visit.  Since getting to the airport is expensive, we had one student who had a car drive me there to pick him up.  The car was very, very small, and there would only be room for the driver, teacher, myself and the teacher's luggage.  I waited at the exit gate for his arrival, and my colleague stayed with the small car (you can't idle anywhere at JFK, so either it's a parking fee, or driving around and around).  Finally, the plane from Tokyo landed and my teacher walked out of the exit from customs.  After greeting me, he asked, "Where is everyone?"

I quickly responded, "They're waiting to greet you at the restaurant, Sensei.  It's very expensive to come to the airport, so they will greet you at dinner."

The meaning behind this exchange is not that complicated, but it is certainly important.  The idea of greetings, or "goaisatsu," is a very important Japanese cultural expectation.  Greeting someone upon his arrival, formally acknowledging his departure and conveying respects on an important occasion, like the New Year, goes beyond a simple welcome or farewell.  It conveys respect and reinforces the idea of a socially unequal relationship (between boss and workers, or teacher and students, or even a geisha and her patron) that conveys benefits to both sides. 

In some ways, goaisatsu is sort of un-American.  The idea of somehow reinforcing a socially unequal relationship strikes us very odd.  And yet, even though we do not like acknowledging social inequality, it exists here as much as anywhere else.  Acknowledging such relationships occurs all the time in American culture, just in different ways.   For example, an American would not greet his boss with a vulgarity, as he might a college buddy at a bar.  In Japan as well as other cultures, the idea of conveying respect for the unequal relationship is simply more formalized. 

"Aisatsu" (the syllable "go" is an honorific) is made up of two kanji (characters) that seem to convey very little of the meaning of the compound word.  "Ai" means "to push open" and "satsu" means "imminent."  As with many words made up of two or more kanji, "ai" and "satsu" by themselves do not provide much insight into the custom; in fact, it almost sounds to an American like an unwelcome gesture rather than a sign of respect. 

Goaisatsu is as important today as ever.  When I was in Fukuoka at New Year a number of years ago, my salaryman host shrugged off a significant hangover, put on a suit and dragged me along to his office.  I thought the place would be empty, but it was filled with coworkers offering greetings to their bosses, a ritual that took several hours to complete (after which the parties started anew). 

As important as goaisatsu is in modern Japan, it is even more important to the adherents of traditional culture.  Anthropologist Liza Dalby, in her field study Geisha (1985) discusses in detail the customs of geisha and their okaasan (lit. "mother," but in this case the meaning is more like a geisha's business manager) in the Kyoto neighborhood of Pontocho.  Dressed in beautiful black-patterned formal kimono, well-known geisha spend days making the rounds of tea houses during the first days of the new year, formally greeting the owners in an acknowledgement that they are dependent on the tea houses for their business.  Unless she was sick in bed, a geisha would be risking an entire year of patronage if she neglected this socially important duty.  The geisha or her okaasan will offer goaisatsu to a tea house at other times as well, as a means of thanking the proprietor for his or her business before an engagement.  All of this human relations work pays off: the geisha will get invited back, and the proprietor knows he has hired someone who knows how to conduct business in a traditional way, which his well-paying customers expect.

While martial arts teachers are not geisha, they are more closely connected to a traditional side of Japanese culture than the average person.  Moreover, when a traditional budo sensei comes to the United States, he has gone to considerable effort - putting aside family considerations and even work considerations to take a long flight to a strange country in order to train his students.  Even though he may be getting paid to teach here, he does not measure his special effort in dollars.  Imagine his pleasure and surprise at being treated in a way that is similar to how he would expect to be treated at home, and the value of Americans offering a formal greeting becomes obvious. 

Reenacting the custom again when the person departs is just as important.   Leaving aside, again, that air travel nowadays is tedious at best, and that the teacher may not know English that well, seeing someone off is once again a way of reinforcing the social bond.  I once paid for a $60 cab ride to the airport to see off an important teacher, even though it would have been cheaper and more convenient for me to say goodbye at the hotel.  However, maintaining a cordial relationship was important enough that it was money well-spent.  That's not to say modifications can't be made: in the case where one of my teachers had to leave at 5:00am, a group of us followed him back to his hotel to convey our farewells the evening before.  When this same person was being picked up at 8:30am on another occasion, however, several of us came over for coffee and "waved him off" as he was driven away. 

Can Americans get away without goaisatsu?  Sure.  Japanese people know that Americans are different and more casual, and pay less attention to manners and protocol.  However, by incorporating the custom of goaisatsu into a relationship with a teacher, you are not only acknowledging the traditional nature of your relationship, you are showing that you have taken the time to learn an important part of his culture.  The warm feelings evoked by the gesture just might pay off with a little extra attention on the training floor, which is always a good thing.

Work Cited:

Dalby, L.

1985 - Geisha NY: Vintage Books


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About The Author:

Deborah Klens-Bigman is a NYC teacher of iaido.. She has also studied, to varying extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo). and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese martial arts. She is a frequent contributor to FightingArts.com.


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