Dojo Etiquette & Dress
NOTE: The precise etiquette and dress code followed at any given dojo may vary from the general information given here. This derives from the fact that O Sensei had a very long career, and his students who went on to teach Aikido and have students of their own learned from him at different times, as well as incorporating their own ideas into the forms observed in their dojo. When training at a new dojo, either as a beginning student or when visiting fellow Aikidoka elsewhere, be sure to respect local traditions. If you are unsure of the required etiquette, follow the lead of the more senior Aikidoka present. Feel free to ask if you haven't had a chance to observe them yourself.
What is the proper before-class ritual?
Basically this involves the students kneeling in one or more lines parallel to the front of the dojo, or shomen. The sensei enters and kneels. All present bow toward the shomen (where a picture of O Sensei [or a piece of calligraphy representing the kanji for "ki" in the case of Ki Society Aikido] is traditionally on display). Then a further bow, sensei to class and class to sensei. There may or may not be clapping or words uttered.
Why do we bow and use Japanese at certain times during a class?
Many Aikidoka feel that it is important to maintain the traditions of the art in order to preserve its integrity and also as a mark of respect to both its founder and its history.
The extent to which these customs are adhered to depends on the dojo. Some customs are almost universally observed: showing respect to your teacher by bowing and saying "Onegai shimasu" [lit. "I make a request"] before class and "Domo arigato gozaimashita (sensei)" ["Thank you very much (teacher)"] after class, as well as to your training partner(s) (before and after each technique in some dojos, only before and after class in others) is arguably the most important. Some dojos insist on using the Japanese terms, others allow English versions.
The bowing is meant as a mark of respect to O Sensei (or Tohei Sensei in Ki Society Aikido), the instructor or your partner - it does not have any religious significance and is in fact more akin to a handshake in Western society. It does not symbolise worship of any sort.
Another reason for bowing is as a safety measure - a physical pause that is used to put aside extraneous thoughts and consider the limitations of your training partner (among other things).
Is talking permitted on the mat?
This depends on the policy of the dojo at which you train; some frown on any talking on the mat at all, while others are quite permissive. Generally, it is best if one observes the etiquette of the dojo they are at, not the one that they usually train in. In no case should anything other than the technique at hand be discussed, however. One line of reasoning behind the no talking rule is to test the observational skills needed by martial artists. Another is that while in class one should concentrate exclusively on Aikido and that talking with others around you serves only to break that concentration.