Tradition in the Dojo

Tradition in the dojo

Japanese etiquette and terminology are part of the tradition in the dojo. But these traditions can be problematic when they are transplanted outside of Okinawa and Japan For myself, before I moved to Japan I was very much what you would describe as a “traditionalist” – kneeling bows, heavy Japanese terminology, kamidana, etc. But after living there for an extended period, learning the language, culture and customs, I came to have almost a different view on the value of tradition.

I find most non-Japanese to have little understanding of the customs and rituals they are performing in the dojo and in some cases I find they take these customs to excess. I believe that the Japanese customs and language seem to provide a pseudo Asian environment and social structure that is not provided for in Western Society. It is sort of an escapism in many respects. Now, whether this escapism is constructive or not is up to the individual dojo and its respective teacher, but as I mentioned before, I find most dojo and sensei do not understand these customs well.

Case in point, the act of bowing is often explained as an exchange of courtesy or respect, much the same as a handshake in the West. This is incorrect. This is Western values of egalitarianism being applied to Japanese culture. It simply does not exist. A bow in Japan has a very different meaning, at its fundamental level it means that someone is “superior” to yourself; it is an act of subordination. Taken from this perspective, bowing is the antithesis of a handshake in many ways.

A second example is the use of the kamidana. I’m sorry, but a kneeling bow to the kamidana is an act of worship, despite how others may explain it. Whether this meshes with one’s religious or personal beliefs is an entirely different matter, but to state that bowing to the kamidana is simply a way to show “respect for the dojo” is grossly incorrect.

For myself I found that living in Japan and being immersed in the culture gave me a deeper understanding of the context of Karate-do that was invaluable in terms of my martial development. However, in most cases in North America for example, the dojo traditions do not correlate with Japanese culture and instead reflect a reality that is a combination of Western ideas about Japan and the specific idiosyncratic practices of the dojo and its teacher. These sensei often have no understanding of how Japanese culture functions.

For example, it can be hard to explain to my students that you use the same phrase (onegaishimasu) to ask a friend to do a favor for you, or that you bow to your boss the same way that you do to your sensei,  or your boss will use the same expression as your sensei (otsukaresama) when you leave work, and still keep that “dojo” feeling to these things. I suspect that some of that “uniqueness” would be lost on teachers who gained a little more understanding of the context of these dojo traditions. It may very well also cause some issues if the sensei has identified too much with Japanese or Okinawan culture.

Personally I do some of my teaching in Japanese and have tried to retain some of the customs that I absorbed during my time in Japan. However, I would be doing myself and my students a great dis-service if I thought they were learning Japanese or Okinawan culture. At best they are learning a tiny sliver of budo culture and maybe a few words in Japanese  (properly pronounced, I hope!).