Dojo is a word of Japanese origin which saw its popularity rise with the invention of Judo by Kano Jigoro shihan and its democratisation with the advent of martial arts. The term also has a philosophical dimension that has its roots in Asian Buddhism. The origin of the word Dojo was found in the Sanskrit ‘Bodhimandala’ or the ‘place of edification’, a sacred place for building the path or the place of awakening. When this came to China, it was translated as 道場. The character ‘JO’ in Japanese (in Chinese ‘Chang’) denotes the place, while the character ‘DO’ denotes the way (in Chinese ‘Dao’ or ‘Tao’). Etymologically the dojo is therefore the place where one studies the way. In other words, it is the place where one rises physically as well as mentally and philosophically.
Originally, the dojo was a hall for learning and practising Buddhism through Nembutsu, Zen and other branches of Buddhism. Gradually the place to practise Bujutsu or martial arts came to be called dojo. This also explains that, both in the case of a dojo where one studies martial arts and for it serving as a location to study and practise Buddhism, strict rules are instituted and it is up to the practitioners to enforce them. Often isolated, of modest size and built without frills or extravagant decoration, the dojo was therefore a place of awakening (Satori) which quickly became a strong symbol in judo.
We know that Kano Jigoro shihan was strongly inspired by Confucianism. The great Chinese philosopher explained in the ‘Book of Rites’ that one achieves (builds) the way partly by study and partly by teaching. This philosophical approach allows us to complete the definition of a dojo by adding that it is, ‘the place where one gradually awakens through study and teaching.’ We can therefore say that the dojo, beyond the physical dimension of the place, represents, in its very essence, an exceptional, energetic space. It is a ‘sacred’ location, where originally not just an instructor and students came together, but a master and disciples, even if this notion has sometimes evolved into a more mercantile relationship. It is still a place where we respect the moral values of judo and the tradition of the original martial art, as defined by Kano Jigoro shihan in 1882. Practice without this respect, in a dojo, is a lack of recognition of the elders and the values of sport and society.
The dojo is a place where the student, as well as the instructor, can develop their personality and discover a step by step art of living. By pushing open the doors of the dojo, the practitioner leaves their daily life outside, to become enriched internally, with a free spirit, with the content of the teaching. Respect, righteousness, politeness and humility are values that dominate within the confines of this place and which are intended to be taken outside for the building of a more just society.
Life and attitudes in a dojo have been organised, over the years, according to codified values that any judoka who goes to Japan today can still feel. The experienced practitioner (Sempai) and beginners (Kohai) must maintain the place perfectly, the roles of each being well established: the Kohai must show respect, obedience and consideration to the Sempai, while the Sempai is responsible for the behavior of the Kohai and the mission is to guide him or her through the stages of their progression.
Traditionally, the dojo should not be built just any way. For example, it must follow strict rules concerning its orientation.
‘Shomen’ (正面）or ‘dojo front’ is installed in the dojo. As a general rule, Shomen is located at the north end of the dojo, that is facing south and is treated as ‘Kamiza’ (上座) or ‘Joseki’ (上席), that is ‘upper seats.’
Today the Shomen is most often decorated with a portrait or another symbolic object related to the discipline taught.
The teacher sometimes sits with their back to Shomen, but there is also the idea that even teachers do not turn their back on Shomen. The same applies to guests.
The opposite side is treated as ‘Shimoza’ or ‘lower seats,’ where the students sit. Students are located there in a customary order. Contrary to European customs, in Eastern countries such as Japan, the left side is considered to be the upper seat and right side to be the lower seat, so when viewed from the front, the higher-ranked students are on the left side and the lower-ranked ones are on the right side. In this way, in the dojo, the vertical and horizontal lines have upper and lower seats, respectively. In the vertical line, the top is Shomen, and the furthest point from it, the lower. In the horizontal line, when viewed from the front, the left is higher and the right is lower (when facing the front, right is upper and left is lower).
The rule of installing Shomen on the north side and facing the south is however often difficult to realise depending on the conditions of the dojo, the relationship between neighboring buildings and other logistical points.
It is a common practice, both in Japan and Europe to set the upper seat far from the entrance. Thus it becomes difficult to respect the rule when the entrance is actually on the north side. Therefore, in many dojos today it is not possible to make sure that Shomen is facing the south. A dojo is therefore built in a way that complies with the reality, while understanding the conventions.
Some references say that this arrangement could be explained historically by the fact that beginners near the waiting area were near the entry and exit door of the dojo. This corresponded to the corner of ‘without rank’ and ‘without name,’ that is, those who were killed first when the dojo was attacked. In contrast, those with the highest ranking protected the Master with their saber. We are talking here about ancestral times which have left their mark on the present and a sense of mystery that can not be confirmed.
Theoretically a symbolic meaning can also be found sometimes in the fact that the teachers face the south. From this position they receive the light of the sun, an energy which corresponds to the knowledge that they must transmit. Their pupils can only see this light through the reflection offered by the teachers, who must therefore be the most faithful mirrors possible.
A fact is that in Japan, where the climate is mild and the amount of rainfall is moderate, there were abundant trees, so the structure was mostly made of wood. Wood was and is still often seen as the source of life. Also, in Japan, the cold and heat were not so severe, so heating and cooling did not develop. As a consequence, the dojo did not use heating in winter and cooling in summer, so it was possible to maintain a close relationship to changes in the surrounding nature.
The elders made sure that the young people kept the dojo in a state of cleanliness essential for the practice of the path. In the past it was an honour as a practitioner to clean the dojo and it was not uncommon to see elders and holders of high grades sweeping the tatami or wiping the wooden floor with a wet rag.
It may be an action born from the ideology of Shinto; an indigenous religion of Japan, that has been passed down since ancient times, removing impurities and keeping to ideas of new life. This Japanese cleanliness was the most obvious characteristic of the dojo. One could be modest, frankly even dilapidated, but it was nonetheless shined like a new penny. To practise otherwise in a traditional dojo is a fault of education. These rules, now ingrained through more than millennia, have been passed down from generation to generation and are still visible in many places of practice.
If today the term dojo is applied to many facilities and it designates nothing more than a club with a few tatami mats, it is important to keep in mind the symbolism of the place and to uphold the values, as useful to the individual as to the group.
Dojos, worthy of the name, where the way is still taught, sometimes disappear in favour of sports halls, where basic rules such as respect, discipline or even tolerance, no longer apply with so much strength. However, all should know that the practitioner who does not respect the dojo, also does not respect the masters and the values of the sport.
Nowadays, the practice of martial arts and judo in particular has become democratised, to the delight of millions of judoka across the planet. The practitioners are often numerous, the atmosphere studious and joyful, the teaching warm. Nevertheless, it remains important to respect certain principles which are an integral part of the DNA of our sport, because otherwise what would remain of the teaching after a few years, if the moral code is not respected? Would our young judoka still be able to explain all this culture and philosophy, which has convinced parents around the world to encourage their children to practise judo, if the teacher does not instill in them this part of the tradition that has so much meaning?
The dojo is a place of symbols where principles are applied that promote living together. It is a place of freedom of expression with respect for others. It is for this reason, among other things, that a dojo, wherever it is located, is a place of non-discrimination, open to anyone who wishes to discover the way. This path is a path of life that we undertake when we put on our first judogi and which finds extensions in everyday life, in professional and family life.
It is for all these reasons that when you walk through the door of a dojo, it is necessary to follow rules that are both common sense and the tradition of martial arts.
We note under these rules, respect for the place, which is no longer approached as a simple place but as an entity loaded with meaning. Any entry into and exit from a dojo thus begins with a bow and a moment of silence. Later, we will always make sure to greet our partner. It is important to be on time so as not to disturb those whom have already commenced a session. In case of delay, we may have to wait for teacher's permission to step on the tatami.
Judo is practiced in judogi, a judogi it is up to us to maintain and with a belt that corresponds to our level.
Hygiene has always been a mark of self-respect and a mark of respect for others. It is also essential in the place of practice of judo. This is why, in this period of pandemic, judo, although it is a contact sport, nonetheless remains a safe sport. The gestures of protection and hygiene have always been key words in judo.
For the reasons which have been explained, we will take our allocated place during the bow and we will not wear any jewellery that could potentially put us or others in danger.
A dojo is a place to live, a place to practise judo, but it is neither a restaurant nor a trendy bar where people talk trivially. Take care to have a correct attitude and attire in all circumstances. During a judo session it is not possible, for example, to stretch out to full length on the tatami, unless invited by the teacher as part of a specific exercise. These few rules, which guarantee mutual respect, apply to practitioners of course, but also to spectators.
All of these are not constraints. They are guidelines for learning to grow personally as part of a group building.
The dojo must be a safe place, allowing everyone to follow their path while respecting that of others. We study, practise and learn by doing, so that in the end, everyone can get on with their lives, armed to face all the vagaries of life.
The dojo is a place of respect, a place of openness, which breathes and which suffers if we do not take care of it. It flourishes if we consider it carefully. Kano Jigoro shihan didn’t just create a sport, he gave us development tools that today, more than ever, are necessary for everyone to thrive.
The dojo is a central element of our judoka lives!