What's in a Dojo?

Although the term ‘dojo’ is often translated as a ‘training hall’ used in the practice of martial arts, the term literally translates to a ‘place of the way’, in which one trains for personal enlightenment. But what is a dojo? And is there a difference between what we perceive to be a karate dojo, and what we think of as a karate club?

It is often said that karate training can be done without the need for physical movement. That is, contemplating a kata in your mind, imagining each movement and technique, and seeing yourself perform it. If we were to follow such a conceptual mentality, we could resign to the fact that we don’t need space to train. In 1934, Miyagi Chojun Sensei wrote a selection of eight Special Merits of Karate. Five of these merits are of interest to this situation: (1) a large space is not required; (2) karate can be practiced alone; (3) its practice does not require much time; (4) proper kata can be selected and practiced at one's own discretion, and; (5) one can practice with empty hands or the use of simple equipment can also be employed without much expense. In summary, karate can be trained alone in no space with no time, equipment or money.

So, returning to the original question in review of Miyagi-sensei’s Merits: what is a dojo? It seems that, if a club can consist of as few as just one person so long as that person is training, be it physically or mentally, then a dojo can be literally anywhere: a bedroom, a shed, a kitchen, a hall, or even a broom cupboard - it doesn't matter so long as some form of training is taking place. And wherever there is a dojo with one or more people training, there is a club. A club can thus be viewed as one or more individuals training in pursuit of a similar target; that target being to discover and understand a path of self-defence, discipline, and on a larger scale, a way of living to further enhance their life. Karate is, in fact, as much a pursuit of ‘the way’ as it is the learning of self-defence, and it is the pursuit of this ‘way’ that (literally translated) forms the fundamental criteria of what a dojo is.

I review this notion now, just one week out before I venture to Japan to complete a 3 year degree at Kyoto University, and leave behind the karate club that I’ve trained with for the past 20 years of my life. Despite knowing that I will one day return, walking away from what I consider to be my dojo was not an easy decision. But, in light of the above information, I’ve come to realise that, in actual fact, I’m not walking away from my dojo. My dojo is built within me, ready to train in where ever I go. I write this now as a means of encouragement both to myself, and to others in similar positions. One of my favourite quotes of all time is: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” (Henry Ford).

I’ve always thought this applies well not only to life in general, but also to karate training. However, recently when watching Disney’s Kung Fu Panda 3 (very wise movie, believe it or not!), I heard a more suitable rendition, which I would like to share with you too: “If you only do what you can do, you'll never be better than what you are” (Master Shifu).

Change is inevitable, both in life and most definitely in our pursuit of the way of karate. What’s important is to keep looking forward and to stay hungry for more. Karate will be with you where ever you so choose to be, and so long as you have the mindset and spirit ready to train yourself, both mentally and physically, know that your dojo will be there too.

Blake Turnbull