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Traditions & Customs

There is a huge difference between a gymnasium and a dojo. And there is also a difference between "a workout" and "training." Here is a brief look at some of those differences, along with some of the traditions and customs that are practiced in a dojo.

Bowing to the front at the start of a belt test.

A gymnasium is where many activities (including non sporting activities) may be conducted and many that may be conducted simultaneously. It is also a place where both individual types of physical fitness routines and activities may be carried out, as well as group types of physical fitness routines and activities may be carried out. Some of these may be conducted with external accompaniment (such as music) and necessary equipment (such as weights, balls, mats, etc.). And with virtually all of these, there is no stated protocol, nor traditions to be adhered to and followed. The gymnasium is most often viewed as simply a place to go and have a workout, attend a class, play a game or possibly even attend a concert and/or dance event. It has no primary purpose, nor tradition. In addition, because of the often wide variety of activities available and/or offered and their scheduled times, gym members may very well not know many of their co-members and/or may not have any contact with any other members and possibly even members of classes that they may be in together with.

Shotokan founder Master Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) said, "anyplace can be a dojo." Being that said, it is what is taking place wherever that dojo may be. A dojo does not need to be a building itself. It can literally be anywhere, as Karate can be practiced at any time, anywhere without the necessity of a training partner, nor any type of equipment.

"Taking place" is relevant in that what is indeed taking place is indeed something that is special, unique and has spiritual significance. This does not only apply to Karate dojo, but indeed to dojo of other arts such as Judo, Kendo, Aikido, as well as to other non-martial arts such as Zen and Ikebana (Japanese art of flower arranging). The meditation and prayer hall of Zen Buddhists was (and continues to be) called a dojo. "Do" or "michi" means "road" or "pathway." "Jo" is the term used to symbolize a castle, great building or great structure. Therefore, the term, "dojo" refers to a place where a person goes to travel on a path to self-actualization and understanding one's true self. "Dojo" can be translated as, "a place for learning the Way." Traditional Japanese dojo, especially those that espoused and empathized Zen aspects of simplicity tended not to be fancy, frivolous or pretentious. These were thought to be distractions to one's training, practice and learning. The training hall was (and is) a place dedicated to the examination of one's inspirations, aspirations, desires and delusions. The less distractions allow the practitioner to only examine themselves and focus on the most important thing: their training.

Upon entering and exiting any dojo, a bow is performed towards the front of the dojo. This bow is also performed at the beginning of each class and at the end of each class. Any time we enter or leave the dojo, we bow toward shomen, as a sign of respect for everything that the dojo means to us. Shomen is the front wall of the room; sho means “true” and men means “face." In traditional dojos, the Kamiza (miniature Shinto shrine), hata (club’s flag), and Dojo-Kun are placed at shomen, thus making it into a somewhat sacred area. Bowing is a Japanese custom for displaying respect, humility, and lack of arrogance.

It is polite to bow when seeing one's fellow students and sempai (senior students to oneself), and to return the bow when bowed to. And it is always mandatory to bow to the Chief Instructor when he/she enters and exits the dojo.

Bowing is also mandatory when training with another student. As mentioned, bowing is to show respect, humility, to ask your training partner to please try their best so that you both will improve, to vow to try one's best and to pre-forgive each other for any mistakes and/or accidents that may possibly happen during the training. And to thank each other for training with each other.

During class, all students must concentrate on only what is being taught at each moment and on training, avoiding any and all distractions. One should not leave the dojo floor unless something is wrong (e.g., you are injured, you feel like throwing up, there is an emergency, etc.). It is improper to take a break whenever you are simply tired or thirsty and then rejoin the class. You should only leave the dojo floor if you are seriously ill. If you arrive late for class, bow on the floor and stand at the end of the floor, wait for the instructor’s permission to join the class. When he/she motions you into the class, bow and say “osu,” then if the class has finished group warm-ups, go to the end of the line to the right of the beginners, regardless of rank.

To emphasize simplicity, unity and formality, we wear a plain white gi (uniform). This gi may at times include a simple patch and minimal Japanese calligraphy with one's name and/or association written on it. The uniform must be kept clean, as well as the practitioner maintaining hygiene, as well as keeping fingernails short and removing any and all jewelry for safety purposes and to prevent distractions to oneself and to others.

The beginning and the end of a Karate class are traditionally as follows:

1. Seiza (“kneel down”): done in rank order, starting with the higher ranks first.

2. Mokuso (“meditate”): we take approximately one minute to empty our minds and prepare for maximum concentration during class. Meditation should be done with eyes closed, body relaxed, and exclusive concentration on your breathing. Do not think about anything, nor anyone, past, present, or future during mokuso.

3. Mokuso yame (“stop meditating”): gently return the focus from your inner self back to the immediate environment you are in.

Bowing from seiza.

4. Shomen ni rei (“bow to shomen”): we bow as a sign of respect and thanks to the founder of Shotokan and the ancestors (Master Funakoshi and Master Nakayama). This tradition has its roots in Shinto religion. We all bow down at the same time, but we come up in a wave. Come up only when you see the higher ranking member next to you come up. Never come up before the instructor, as it is considered rude.

5. Sensei ni rei (“bow to sensei”): the entire class bows to the teacher. If sensei is not present, the command will be sempai ni rei, thus bowing to the leader of that day’s class.

6. Dojo-Kun (dojo tenets). These are said at the end of class immediately after mokuso yame is called by the Sempai of the class and repeated as a group immediately each tenet:

Hitotsu! Jinkaku Kansei Ni Tsutomeru Koto:

One! Seek Perfection of Character

Hitotsu! Makoto No Michi O Mamoru Koto:

One! Be Faithful

Hitotsu! Doryoku No Seishin O Yashinau Koto:

One! Endeavor

Hitotsu! Reigi O Omonzuru Koto:

One! Respect Others

Hitotsu! Kekki No Yu O Imashimuru Koto:

One! Refrain From Violent Behavior

Note: "Itotsu!" (meaning "first" or "one" in Japanese) is said first before each tenet to emphasize the equal importance of each tenet. However, when reciting the Dojo-Kun in its English translation, "one" is usually not said, yet equally emphasized.

7. Otagai ni rei (“bow to the others”), is performed at the end of class by the sempai of the class to the rest of the class after the Sensei leaves the floor. This is a way of giving thanks to everyone for being present and helping us all learn karate and for training together.

8. Soji ("cleaning"), is performed after class by students. This consists of (and may not be limited to) all students taking lightly wet towels and pushing upward with their hands (NOT with their feet, as this as seen as being lazy and rude to others) across the dojo floor simultaneously going in the exact same direction. Following this ritual, the lower rank students will retrieve and rinse the towels and return them to from where they were obtained.

It cannot be emphasized enough to ask questions that you may have about anything to any Black Belt before or after class. There are no silly and/or non-important questions. There is lots of help available.

Most of all, keep training!

Soji - Cleaning the dojo


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