THE TRADITIONAL DOJO:THE TRADITIONAL DOJO:
More Than a Training Hall
Rigid discipline between the instructor and his students is a
trademark of tarditional dojo. Within the dojo the instructor's word
is unchallenged; what he says is the law.
The first thing you notice is the silence. It emanates from an atmosphere
that seems to simultaneously draw you in, and yet, is a forbidding
barrier, a warning that entrance will not be easy; that familiarity with
this place will not be granted quickly. The traditional dojo (training
hall) has the power to intimidate as well as intrigue, and for the
beginner entering study there, it's likely to do both.
For its long-time inhabitants, the dojo is a site that borders on the
sacred. It's a place for the battles against fears and egos. The dojo
generates such a feeling of respect and reverence among veteran budoka
(warriors) that a few years ago in Japan a class of them at a university
dojo were horrified when a throng of rock fans cut through the training
hall on their way to a concert. Police were called to halt the carnage
All this austerity and semi-religious devotion might be hard to
understand for martial artists whose dojo are littered with trophies,
decorations and ornate furnishings. These are martial artists who've
become accustomed to regarding their dojo simply as a gymnasium. Likewise,
it's difficult to imagine coming to grips with one's ego and fears when
surrounded by an array of saunas, hot tubs and weight training equipment.
But the dojo isn't a place for display, nor is it intended primarily as a
building for physical fitness exercise. Those affectations, common to many
contemporary martial arts schools, have nothing to do with training in the
real budo (way of the warrior). At best they're a distraction; at worst
they can completely destroy any opportunity for the martial ways to become
a meaningful way of life. With traditional dojo at a premium for the
martial artist in the U.S. and Canada, it's important to understand three
things: 1) why the dojo must remain the way it was originally intended, 2)
what the dojo represents, and 3) what budoka can do to maintain its
traditions and purpose in the modern world.
Of course, the first training ground for feudal martial artists was the
battlefield, where instruction was negligible and a "good student" was
synonymous with "survivor." As with many martial traditions that influence
the budo today, the dojo as we know it is a result of the formulation of
ryu (systems) in the late 15th century. This codified the fighting arts of
the Japanese warrior and gave them stability, allowing their transmission
to new generations. As distinctive ryu developed, specific buildings or
areas were set aside in which schools for ryu could be maintained.
Were the original dojo vast palaces maintained by feudal lords for their
samurai? Probably not. Actually, most lessons received by the samurai were
given in small dojo found in their own quarters or outside in the castle
gardens. The majority of the dojo were somewhat like private businesses
(although their masters and students would never have thought of them that
way) operated by families who taught. Such was the case with the main
Yagyu shinkage~ryu dojo, built by the Yagyu family while they were still
vassals of the Miyoshi daimyo (feudal lord). It continued as a private
enterprise after the clan was granted diamyo status by the shogun. Other
dojo were under the specific authority of a lord, such as the school of
the itto-ryu, which was maintained under the patronage of the Tokugawa
shogunate. Still other dojo functioned strictly as commercial schools of
instruction, much like today's typical school.
By the end of the 15th century, when the martial arts were almost
entirely under the purview of the ryu system, the average bujutsu (martial
arts) dojo was a small, simple building, often hidden away in the forest
or out in the fields. This distance allowed members of the ryu to learn in
private, which was a considerable advantage when the secrets of one's
school could mean the difference between life and death in a battle or
duel. Then, too, the small size and simplicity of the dojo encouraged the
student to fully concentrate on the action within.
In modem-day dojo, many instructors play their own version of
show-and-tell: they tell how to perform a technique, then show how
you can improve it.
Why Dojo are Revered
Whatever the exact manner in which the dojo was operated, or whatever its
size, as a center for martial arts instruction it was very important to
old-time Japanese martial artists. As a hub for training in the crafts
that could save his life and the fortunes of his daimyo, the samurai
considered the dojo to be something special. This is one reason for the
veneration of the dojo that began during that age. The other is the close
connection between many of the classical martial disciplines and the
native religions of Japan.
Because the ryu often depended upon a belief in divine guidance or on
secret, religiously oriented rituals to reinforce its methods, the dojo
assumed a elevated significance. In fact, the founders of many early ryu
were believed to have had instruction from deities in the formation of
their systems, thus giving to the school an added luster and appeal. In
time, the founders were enshrined in their dojo as a kind of ancestor
Ienao Choisai, for example, is said to have been granted the secrets of
the Katori Shinto-ryu by a winged mountain spirit while he sat under a
peach tree. In the original version of the story, Ienao was given those
secrets by a kappa, an ugly little water sprite that inhabited boggy
ponds, but the story was later changed to give it more class. Today, the
carved effigy of Ienao rests on a special shelf at the Katori-ryu dojo.
The respect the classical warrior afforded his dojo is evidenced by the
word itself, which is borrowed from Buddhist terminology. In that faith,
the dojo is a temple's inner compound, a place of worship- a place (jo) to
follow the Way (do). Although this origin might lead to the assumption
that the dojo is a church or temple, that isn't entirely accurate. In
truth, many early dojo were contained in Buddhist temples for the same
reason that village meetings, weddings, and other social events were held
there: Often a small hamlet's temple was the only large building around.
Therefore, they were used as repositories for official records, villagers'
savings and for martial arts training halls.
This tradition has continued on. In the late 19th century, when Jigoro
Kano established judo, he opened his first dojo at the Eisho Temple in
Tokyo. He and his disciples stayed there until the vibrations of their
falling bodies on the mats kept shaking ancestral tablets off the temple's
altar, forcing the priests to ask him to leave. And it was no coincidence
that the first dojo in Hawaii and California built by emigrating Japanese
were housed in Buddhist churches as well, since those were the center of
community social activities and were obvious sites for judo training.
Nowadays in a traditional dojo, it's common to see certain objects that
appear to have religious meaning, especially kamiza, small shrines on the
wall that are usually adorned with votive offerings; and gohei, twisted
strips of paper.
These shrines, however, are not dedicated to a god, but to the spirit of
some master of the school. At one of the original aikido dojo of Morihei
Uyeshiba, a kamiza houses his spirit, yet it, and other kamiza, aren't
really articles of religious faith.
The dojo isn't a church or temple; it's not a gym, either. In our
fitness-conscious society, the local gym has become a gathering place,
taking the role once played by neighborhood bars. Members attend gyms to
lift weights, run or swim - all the while chatting with old friends and
making new ones. It's a festive atmosphere. The same, though, cannot be
said of the dojo. It isn't a place for entertainment or for relaxing
through exercise. Instead of an escape from the rigors of everyday life,
which a gym provides, the dojo is a place for confronting these rigors.
In fact, all the fears, problems and worries of everyday life are
concentrated in the atmosphere of the dojo. The office worker who's shy
when dealing with fellow employees will find it even more difficult to be
shy with others who are trying to throw him all over the room or are
smashing kicks and punches at his body. The macho laborer with a
condescending attitude toward women finds no haven in the dojo either,
because he often meets females who are more skilled than he is. He takes
instruction from them and must treat them as seniors.
This is a crucial distinction between a gym and a "place for following
the Way." At a gym, although it might not be immediately apparent, most
members indulge themselves. They engage in demanding exercise, but nearly
all of it is self-directed. Even those who enroll in classes at a gym
don't really think of themselves as submitting to an authority; namely,
the teacher. The aerobics instructor, for example, is more of a guide, an
equal who just knows more about one area of fitness than class members.
And if business or personal matters come up, the time at a gym is pushed
aside with perhaps a twinge of regret, nothing more.
But the situation is remarkably different at the dojo. There, no one is
allowed to indulge themselves. Each person is expected to make a totally
committed effort. Nor do budoka walk into the dojo saying, "Tonight I'll
work on my kicks," or "This session I'll concentrate on sparring." The
course of instruction is decided by the sensei (instructor). It's
impossible to leave class if something arises during the lesson that isn't
The sensei, rather than merely being an instructor, is actually a monarch
in the dojo. He must know what members need in their training and should
direct even the more advanced students with a rigid discipline. Why?
Because he believes, just as many martial artists have believed since
there were dojo, that humans are basically lazy. They must be directed
along a path, especially if, as in the budo, that path is uphill and
rocky. So instead of indulging himself, the budoka confronts himself
critically, starkly, and with an honesty which leads to improved skill and
Noted shito-ryu authority Fumio Demura has run a successful dojo for
over two decades. A genuine karate dojo should be simple should
reflect the art's tradition, and should be easily accessible to
students, he says.
Because of the severity of such an approach, it's no surprise that the
dojo must meet requirements necessary to achieve the aims of those
training inside it. Upon entering a dojo for the first time, most people
are struck by its bareness. Walls are usually paneled in plain wood. The
floor is wooden, too. If the dojo is used for studying a budo that
includes weaponry, racks of weapons are unobtrusively hung on the wall. A
visitor's section may be provided with a few chairs, but it's rarely large
or comfortable, because the budo is a discipline you do, not watch. There
is little to distract from the goal of self-perfection sought by every
As mentioned earlier, the only ornaments are usually found at the front
of the dojo, or the kamiza (kami means "up- per," and za is a seat or
position). The kamiza is the position of the spirit of the dojo, or where
the sensei himself is seated during training. It is often a shallow alcove
in the wall or a shelf. But whatever its construction, it's considered to
be the center of the dojo and is approached with special respect. The
kamiza may be marked by a portrait of the founder of the particular budo
being studied. It may have a small Shinto shrine, sometimes called a
butsuden, and there might be a few other odds and ends. Karate dojo often
have a row of makiwara (padded striking posts). Yet, the dojo's overall
appearance is plain, which allows for minimum distraction.
Accordingly, the dojo is always kept clean. The students, crouched over,
make long swinging sweeps with dampened towels, scouring the dojo floor
with greater care than they probably show for the floors in their own
homes. The reason for this ritual (known as soji) is purification, not so
much for the dojo's sake, but for the budoka. The visitor watching the end
of a training session may see only a class of students, whooping and
charging up and down the floor, mopping with furious enthusiasm. But the
martial artist's soji isn't all that different from the stern-faced Zen
monk's samu, work done with a singlemindedness that's a kind of moving
meditation. Through a ritual of cleaning his place of training, the budoka
involves himself in prescribed action that cleanses his mind and instills
sincere thoughts. When he leaves, the dojo floor is ready for the next
class, and he is humbled and ready to face the outside world.
Modest, unadorned and spotlessly clean - these are the hallmarks of a
traditional dojo. Surprisingly, though, they might require a bit of
searching. Ten years ago, ornate trappings and a Chinese restaurant-like
decor might have impressed prospective students, but as the public is
becoming more informed about the real martial ways, such gimmicks lose
their appeal. Visitors at a dojo who want to start training there are
often interested in a long-time commitment. They want spiritual and mental
development, exercise and skill in self-defense. They're more likely to be
impressed by the somber, atmosphere of a traditional dojo than gimmicks.
And once entered, they're more likely to continue training there because
of that environment. It promotes the dignity and character that are the
highest goals of the budo.
Don't be discouraged if your dojo isn't exactly like the ones described
here. Such a condition doesn't necessarily mean the spirit of the martial
ways isn't being upheld at your dojo. But just as the budo have a rigid
path laid out for the development of their disciples, so too must the dojo
conform to certain prescriptions if it's going to be used properly. It is
the responsibility of all budoka - master or student - to maintain their
dojo as a place for the noble use it was intended - a place for following